Perhaps you woke up this morning with a spring in your step, helped along by a cup or two of coffee. But now, in front of your computer screen, the caffeine has worn off and your eyelids feel heavy. Figuring out how to stay awake at work is the million-dollar question — more pressing than any item on your work to-do list.
You’re not alone: More than one-third of Americans report feeling so tired during the day that it interferes with their work, among other things. A calm, quiet office is great for concentration, but it’s also the perfect place for fatigue to settle in.
If your job involves driving or operating machinery or if you work the night shift, the need to stay alert is even greater. The following tips to stay awake at work provide simple solutions to increase alertness when you need it most — during your workday.
Why Is It Hard to Stay Awake at Work?
Research has shown that full-time employees are getting less and less sleep over the years, which leads to poor performance and productivity.
Let’s face it: We live in exhausting times. The constant stimulation from screens and other factors can sap our energy quickly, sitting indoors at a desk for hours naturally brings on sleepiness. And to top it off, many of us do not get enough sleep.
According to one study about tiredness at work, full-time employees have been getting less and less sleep over the past 30 years. Sleep loss can affect our productivity, performance, and engagement with our jobs.
Many other reasons may lead to tiredness at work. Perhaps you skipped a meal, leading to low blood sugar. Or maybe you had a bigger lunch than you needed, and the demands of digestion are dragging you down.
It’s important to rule out any medical conditions that may be a root cause of your fatigue. But for most people, the following tips can help bring you greater energy and less fatigue during your workday.
Best Tips for Staying Awake at Work
If you frequently feel sleepy at work, the following tips and lifestyle changes might boost your energy level. All of them promote a healthy way of life — which includes staying active, eating well, keeping hydrated, improving your sleep habits, and giving yourself some much-needed TLC and self-care.
1. Go for a Walk Before Work
Did you know that walking can be an effective tool to beat fatigue?
Get some steps in before work, and you’ll reap the benefits all day. In one study, a daily program of moderate walking was just as effective as fast walking at reducing fatigue.
Try walking with a friend or join a walking club to stay motivated. Walk to work to take advantage of the fresh air and sunlight — both will help your energy level. If distance (or weather) doesn’t permit that, walk on a treadmill for a few minutes before heading into the office.
For more motivation, you can also try a wearable activity tracker. Even a quick five to 15-minute walk outside on a break during the day can do wonders.
2. Drink Plenty of Water
Although you might not realize it, dehydration adds to your fatigue. Even mild dehydration can increase fatigue in both men and women.[4, 5] Opt for a tall glass of water, or bring a refillable water bottle to work.
Pro Tip: Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces to stay hydrated!
Although other beverages will hydrate you, water will do it without added sugars or artificial colors or flavors.
You can also chew ice chips or munch on foods that have high water content, such as fresh fruits and veggies.
3. Take Exercise Breaks
If your work schedule permits, break up your day with short bursts of exercise to increase blood flow and help you stay alert. If you’re lucky, your workplace may have a fitness center or break room where you can do some quick push-ups or squats. Or you can take a brief jog at lunchtime.
Try challenging yourself to take a 5-minute exercise break to combat fatigue!
You might feel guilty for taking time out of your day for even a five-minute workout. However, the boost that you will experience in your productivity will more than make up for it. Encourage colleagues to join in, and do planking or push-up challenges together. Studies show that even the most moderate form of movement can combat fatigue during the workday.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Most people need eight hours of sleep to stay alert, according to one study about workplace fatigue. The same study found an increased risk of sleep loss and fatigue among those who work long hours (e.g., a 12-hour shift) and those who start the day extra early.
To prevent sleep loss, set a consistent bedtime and get seven to nine hours of sleep as often as possible. If you experience segmented sleep — when night slumber is divided into two periods separated by waking — go to bed earlier to make up for any hours lost during the night. Also don’t get too much sleep, as that can cause daytime fatigue.
Finally, consider your quality of sleep — if it’s poor, you might have a condition that requires attention, such as sleep apnea.
5. Take a Power Nap
Pro Tip: Squeeze in a 15-minute power nap to increase focus and improve brain function!
Never underestimate what a good nap can do. A power nap of under 15 minutes can increase alertness and improve mental function. Naps longer than 30 minutes can leave you feeling drowsy upon waking but can boost alertness and brain function for many hours after.
The best time for a nap is after lunch or in the early afternoon, according to studies. Also, those who nap regularly experience more benefits than those who do it rarely.
6. Try Essential Oil Aromatherapy
A little aromatherapy is good for body and soul. At least one animal study shows that inhaling an essential oil mixture can combat fatigue. The study looked at ways to relieve fatigue after exercise and found that using a combination of essential oils — specifically, peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, sweet orange, and clove — offered the best results.
7. Ask for a Standing Desk
Standing desks are gaining in popularity as we learn about the health consequences of sitting all day. But do they help combat fatigue? At least one study says yes.
Did you know that standing desks promote more alertness during tasks?
Participants of the study worked on reading and creative tasks; they reported more alertness and enthusiasm while standing — although less comfort. If your workspace permits a standing desk, request one from your employer.
Better yet, request a desk that you can adjust up or down so that you can alternate between standing and sitting.
8. Listen to Music
Depending on your work tasks, listening to soft music might help keep fatigue at bay. In one study, participants who enjoyed relaxing music while performing a continuous task experienced less mental fatigue.
The reason why music helped was unclear, but the researchers believed that the music “blocked” the fatigue response. For tasks requiring a lot of concentration, try instrumental music with no words to distract you.
9. Do Simple Stretches
Taking time to stretch can do wonders, and you don’t need a lot of space to do it. You can stretch while standing, or even sitting in your chair. Either way, do a simple twist from side to side or reach for the ceiling or your toes.
Scientific research suggests that the gentle stretching associated with yoga and Tai Chi can help to reduce fatigue.[13, 14] Stretching also improves your posture. If you’re sitting up straight rather than slouching, your body conveys the message that you feel more energetic — and your brain just might believe it.
10. Take a Break
Simply taking a break, getting up from your desk, and walking to the bathroom can sometimes eliminate your fatigue. It allows you to switch tasks so that when you return to your desk, you can start fresh.
Sometimes the simplest tips are the most effective. A splash of cold water on your face can do the trick if you suddenly feel drowsy and need to snap out of it. The cold water will invigorate you, like the shock of an icy shower.
11. Eat Healthy Snacks
Low blood sugar can quickly sap your energy. Be prepared at work with energy-boosting snacks that’ll put the kibosh on fatigue.
Try options that combine protein and carbohydrates, such as almond butter on celery sticks or coconut-milk yogurt with granola. The carbs will give you quick energy, while the protein will keep you alert even longer.
Nuts are an excellent snack, and fruits such as apples, bananas, and citrus are grab-and-go favorites. Avoid sugary snacks, which might give you a brief pick-me-up but will ultimately leave you crashing.
12. Turn Up the Lights
If you feel tired, look on the bright side — literally. Brightening the lighting in your workspace can help you feel more alert.
In one study, “bright light treatment” reduced fatigue as much as it helped to lessen depression in people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — that’s pretty impressive.
Exposure to natural light is particularly effective. When sunlight enters receptors in the eyes, it helps regulate one’s circadian rhythm, otherwise known as the sleep-wake cycle. Try opening the window shades during the day, or taking short breaks outside.
13. Take Energy-Boosting Supplements
Certain vitamins and minerals help you feel more energetic and alert — especially if your body is low on them. Iodine, vitamin B-12, iron, and magnesium are nutrients that can put more pep in your step. Be sure to check your iron and B-12 levels at your annual physical.
14. Try Deep Breathing
When we tap into our breath, it can have powerful effects. Yogis use a range of deep breathing exercises for various purposes, including dispelling fatigue. Taking time out of your workday for several deep breaths can bring more oxygen into the bloodstream, which can have an invigorating effect.
To begin, put one hand in your upper chest, just under your collarbone, and the other hand on your stomach. Breathe in, slowly filling your chest and then your belly. Pause. Then empty the breath from the chest first, followed by the belly. Repeat 10 times.
15. Start a Conversation
Have you ever felt energized after chatting with a friend? Sometimes energy is contagious. The next time you feel tired at work, start a conversation with a colleague. You can talk about work, or something completely different.
Having conversations with colleagues can be a great way to wake up your mind — just be mindful of course!
The point is to wake up your mind with a fresh train of thought. It might feel like you’re stealing time away from your job, but you will likely both benefit by being more productive after a quick chat.
Are You Experiencing Low Energy Overall?
A little sleepiness at work is common, and most people have experienced it at some time or other. However, if your fatigue persists or affects other areas of your life, consider what else is going on.
Take a look at your lifestyle, including your sleep pattern, diet, stress levels, and other factors that might result in low energy. If you take medication, drowsiness could be a side effect. Avoid sleep medicine, which can leave you groggy the next day. For more clues, read our article, Why Am I Always Tired?
And don’t forget to look at the big picture. Are you working too hard? If so, strive for the right balance of work and play. When you reach that balance, you will likely have enough energy for everything you need to do.
Points to Remember
In addition to making sure you are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, a few simple tricks can boost your energy and alertness. Try going for a walk before work, staying hydrated, taking exercise breaks, power napping, switching to a standing desk, eating healthy snacks, and trying energy-boosting supplements such as vitamin B-12 or ginseng.
Look at the big picture to see if fatigue is affecting other areas of your life, and if so, maybe a lifestyle change is in order. Evaluate your sleep pattern, diet, stress levels, and other factors that might impact your energy level. Before long, with some minor lifestyle changes, you should gain more energy and feel more productive and awake at work.
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- Ganio MS, et al. Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men. Br J Nutr. 2011;106(10):1535–1543.
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