Three Ways to Protect Yourself If Chronic Sleep Deprivation Is Affecting Your Job


Are you chronically sleep deprived because of a new baby, stress, or other medical condition? Is it hurting you at work?

Performance problems at work could result in your termination unless you take action.

Read on to learn about what you can do.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep disorders and chronic sleep deprivation—the phenomenon of consistently getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night—can have “profound and widespread effects on human health,” according to researchers. Some of these effects include conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

Experts maintain that “the case can be confidently made that sleep loss and sleep disorders have profound and widespread effects on human health,” regardless of whether the sleep loss occurs as a result of lifestyle, like a new baby; due to occupational conditions, such as shift work, long working hours, or an irregular sleep schedule; or because of biological circumstances, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, anxiety, or stress.

Is Chronic Sleep Loss a Disability?

Individuals suffering from chronic sleep deprivation may be entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), which broadened the definition of disability and shifted legal analysis of a disability discrimination claim to an inquiry of whether discrimination occurred and whether a reasonable accommodation was offered or refused. Legal analysts note that, under the amended ADA, “short-term impairments and chronic impairments with short-term symptoms may be considered disabilities.” Thus, employers must consider as a disability the short-term, temporary mental health issues that stem from chronic sleep deprivation.

What to Do If Sleep Loss Is Hurting Your Job Performance

If you are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and it is affecting your job, you should take the following steps to protect yourself:

1. Notify the company that you suffer from a disability covered by the ADA.

You must clearly assert that you have a disability to gain the protections of the ADA. Notifying the company of your disability protects you from being fired or demoted because of your disability.

The best approach is usually to tell someone in human resources, though you can also discuss the situation with your boss. Check your company’s employee handbook to see whether it has specific procedures for reporting a disability.

It’s best to provide this notification in writing so that you will have a record of it. A short email is fine.

2. Request a modified work schedule or time off.

Employers with 15 or more employees are required to make a reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with a disability. A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment that makes it possible for an employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job or to enjoy the equal benefits and privileges of employment.

To be eligible to receive a reasonable accommodation from your employer, you must first establish that you meet the definition of having an “actual” disability or a “record of” a disability. You can find this at ADAAA § 1630.2(g). If your condition only meets the “regarded as” definition of disability, you are not entitled to a reasonable accommodation from your employer.

  • An actual disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • A record of a disability means you don’t have a current disability but you do have a history of a disability or you have been misclassified as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
  • Regarded as having a disability means that your employer thinks you have an actual or perceived impairment that lasts longer than six months.

While these terms have specific meanings under the law, the upshot is that you are responsible for requesting a workplace accommodation for a disability. Time off may be an acceptable accommodation.

If you are requesting time off, it is ideal to put a reasonable end date on it. Ideally it should be for less than three months. If you reach the end of the period and you need more time off, you can always renew your request.

3. Get a doctor and/or get your doctor up to speed.

If you don’t have a doctor helping you with these accommodation requests, get one.

If you do have a doctor, make sure he or she knows what is going on and how it affects your work performance.

In the case of a non-obvious disability, like chronic sleep problems, your doctor will be your most powerful ally. Your doctor should be able to provide medical documentation of your condition and its duration, the ways your condition can affect the essential functions of your job, and the accommodations your doctor believes will enable you to perform the essential functions of the job.

4. Get a lawyer.

This is a very complicated area of law with very specific requirements. Your employer will have a lawyer advising it on these ADA issues. You should too.

A good resource is the lawyer locator at

Then, make sure that your doctor and your lawyer are communicating and are on the same page with their communications with your employer.

A doctor who is uninformed about the ADAAA could accidentally jeopardize your case. With your doctor and lawyer working together, your rights will be protected.

Summing it Up

  • Performance problems due to sleep deprivation could get you fired.
  • You may be protected under the ADA.
  • Tell HR or your supervisor about your problem in writing and explain that you are protected under the ADA.
  • If you don’t have a doctor, get one. Then find a lawyer.
  • For more information on disability law, visit our webpage.