Tired at Work? Here’s What to Do

tired woman rubbing her eyes at work

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
May 29, 2024 at 3:9AM UTC

Exhausted at work? We’ve all been there. Whether you stayed up too late, had a restless night, feel an illness coming on, or are just plain, inexplicably tired, getting through the workday when you feel like you can barely keep your eyes open can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge. So what do you do when you’re tired at work?

Here are coping strategies and tips for getting through the day when you’re fatigued at work.

What are the causes of exhaustion at work?

There are many reasons why you might be experiencing fatigue at work. Some common factors include:

• Health problems or illnesses

• Stress and other mental health problems, such as depression

• Alcohol and drugs

• Poor diet

• Long work hours

• Lack of exercise

• Environmental causes, such as extreme temperatures or insufficient natural light exposure

These are just a few causes of lack of sleep or exhaustion. If you are frequently inexplicably tired, you should consult your doctor.

How can I overcome tiredness at work?

Exhaustion can affect your work performance. According to the National Safety Council, the lack of productivity consistent with fatigued workers costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually. In some cases, usually depending on your industry or the type of work you perform, your exhaustion can be dangerous to you or others. If you work in this type of environment, don’t go to work! The safety of you and others is more important than clocking in.

But if being fatigued at work isn’t something that will cause any real harm, how do you focus when you’re tired?

1. Wait until 9:30 am for the coffee.

When you’re exhausted you probably want to have a cup of coffee right away. Avoid that temptation and wait until 9:30, because your cortisol tends to spike around 8:00, and coffee will decrease its effects on your body. Try to finish up your cup before noon, though, because that’s when cortisol spikes again. Plus, you don’t want the caffeine to interfere with your much-needed sleep later.

2. Meditate.

Meditation is a great stress-reliever. Do it as soon as you get up in the morning, and it will help you concentrate. If you’re able to get in a five-minute meditation later on in the day, it will also help you wake up and focus.

3. Do your important tasks early and creative tasks later.

Since your productivity will probably suffer a bit today, try to tackle the important tasks on your to-do lists early on. You’ll feel better knowing that you’re accomplishing something despite your exhaustion at work. In the afternoon, when your energy is lower, your creativity will actually be higher, so take advantage of this state to brainstorm or work on issues that require innovative thinking.

4. Set goals.

Setting concrete goals for the day will help keep you on track. Your mind tends to wander when you’re tired, so make a list of tasks that you want to accomplish and actually write them down. Focus on these tasks and minimize distractions—now is not the time to check Instagram.

5. Move around.

Keep yourself moving throughout the day. If you can get outside, go for a quick walk. This will get your blood flowing, raise your body temperature, and invigorate you. The fresh air will also help you combat sluggishness. If you can’t go outside, go for a brief stroll around the office or up and down the stairs.

6. Take a power nap.

Taking a quick nap—about 20 minutes—can actually give you energy. According to a study published by Sara C. Mednick, Denise J. Cai, Jennifer Kanady, and Sean P.A. Drummond, naps are more effective than caffeine for improving verbal memory, procedural motor skills, and perceptual learning.

If you can, take a power nap in a quiet place, such as your car, during your lunch break. It’s best to do it in the early afternoon to prevent it from interfering with your sleep schedule.

What should I eat when tired at work?

Whole foods high in carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and healthy fats are a good bet to give you a boost when you’re exhausted at work. Try foods like:

• Oatmeal

• Nuts

• Fruits like bananas or avocados

• Cheese

• Eggs

• Plain yogurt

Remember to drink plenty of water, and skip foods that are high in sugar—they’ll give you a quick boost, but you’ll crash later.

5 Immediate Actions to Take to Wake Yourself up at Work 

1. Stand up and stretch.

If you can’t make it outside, even standing up from your desk and shaking your limbs or touching your toes can give you a quick energy boost.

2. Splash cold water on your face.

The cold water will perk you up and decrease fatigue by giving you a shot of adrenaline.

3. Chew peppermint gum.

Or have a mint. The scent can help wake you. Keep a supply in your desk for this type of situation. 

4. Look at pictures of nature.

University of Melbourne researchers Kate Lee, Kathryn Williams, Leisa Sargent, Nicholas Williams, and Katherine Johnson found that looking at images of nature for just 40 seconds can improve your focus. So open up those hiking pictures!

5. Read or watch a funny article or video.

Laughter releases endorphins that will perk you right up. So find something hilarious—whether it’s an Onion article or YouTube video—and get laughing.

What to do when you are tired of working

Burnout is a whole different beast from exhaustion at work. If you’re tired of your job, consider the reasons why. Before you immediately quit, try talking to your boss about ways of improving your workload or environment.

Or perhaps it really is time to move on. Experiencing burnout at work can cause you to become more irritable and stressed—as well as interfere with your sleep and alertness. Here are 15 things to consider if you’re feeling unhappy at work and think it might be time to leave.

What if I’m exhausted all the time?

Many people experience occasional fatigue or difficulty sleeping. However, if your problem has become chronic, you should see a physician and/or a mental health professional to explore and treat the underlying causes.

For advice on improving your sleep, read:

How to Get Better Sleep: 10 Strategies for Getting a Good Night's Rest

I Beat Insomnia Without Sleeping Pills — Here's How

When Does Poor Sleep Behavior Become a Crisis? Women Weigh In

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