A nap on the train might help fight sleep deprivation, but be aware of your surroundings.
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A nap on the train might help fight sleep deprivation, but be aware of your surroundings.(GETTY IMAGES)Working-class America has a dangerous problem on its hands: As we squeeze more into our days—work, families, gym memberships, full social calendars, and longer commutes—we're becoming more sleep-deprived, which can cause problems on the job or during the ride home.

"Sleep has always been considered negotiable," says Ralph Downey III, PhD, chief of sleep medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. “Our activities are priorities over sleep until it's too late and we drive off the road.”

Jaime Marrero, 48, of Manati, Puerto Rico, knows this all too well. "I've woken up from the sound of my wheels on road markers on several occasions," says the former applications engineer, a dad who used to endure a 55-mile commute. "At work, I'd fall asleep in seminars. A peer would kick me to keep me awake." (Marrero was diagnosed with sleep apnea five years ago, and a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine has since eliminated his problems.)

Does sleepiness affect your commute or workday? Here are four common scenarios.

Drowsy driving

Tired drivers have delayed reaction times, or they doze at the wheel, so driving after a night of poor sleep is a dangerous idea. "One-quarter of people drive fairly sleepy, and a small percentage have wrecks," says David Davila, MD, medical director of the Baptist Health Sleep Center in Little Rock, Ark., and a National Sleep Foundation spokesperson.

Some people have trouble getting home, says Stuart F. Quan, MD, visiting professor of medicine in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Highway driving is a boring, semiautomatic task. You'd tend to fall asleep."

Missing your stop

Sleepy commuters who use mass transit can inadvertently sleep through their bus or train stops. “The depth of your sleep is the reason you miss the stop,” says Downey. "If you sleep more than 20 minutes, you have slow-wave sleep, which is harder to wake up out of. You have no perception of what's going on in your environment."

There are pros and cons to taking a nap during your commute. "If you're sleep-deprived and you have an hour commute, you made up an hour of sleep," says Downey. But long, late naps can affect your ability to fall asleep at bedtime, causing a cycle of sleep deprivation.

Falling asleep on the job

Take a dimly lit room, add a bland PowerPoint presentation and tired employees, and you've got the perfect setting for unintentional nodding off. "In our brains, we have a sleep drive that's fighting the wake drive, which tries to keep us awake," says Downey. "In a boring meeting, your sleep drive is pushing to come out. There's no stimulus for your wake drive to come out, unless someone shocks you."

Relying on sugar and caffeine

Who, during a sleepy moment, hasn't downed coffee or grabbed chocolate to keep himself attentive? Sugar and caffeine can provide a burst of wakefulness, but it's short-lived. "Sleep eventually wins," says Downey. "Society needs to get to a point where we recognize that we need to sleep instead of buying a Mars bar."

To avoid work-related sleep problems, try these solutions:

  • Work out. "Exercising in the morning increases alertness, which can help with your commute," says Dr. Davila. If you're sleepy after work, exercise before commuting home (between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.), for "alertness enhancement" and improved nighttime sleeping.
  • Form a sleep carpool. Ask a friend to take turns driving and napping on alternate days. "This can work as long as the driver doesn't need to be stimulated by your conversation to stay awake," says Downey.
  • Change your schedule. "Talk to your boss about telecommuting or flexible hours" says Dr. Quan. "If you work 10-hour days, get enough sleep on those days to safely go to and from work."
  • Seek sunshine. "In the morning, get as much bright light exposure as possible," says Dr. Davila. Get off the train a stop early and walk to work, take a walk around your block before driving to work, or park a few blocks away from the office.
  • Sleep on the clock. If you have permission, taking a nap during work hours is useful, says Dr. Quan. "Even 15 minutes will help a person get through the day." If you commute on a train or bus, that might also be an opportunity to slip in a quick nap—but in either case, set an alarm so you won't oversleep.
  • Prepare for the drive. Drink a cup of coffee or take a 20-minute nap, then drive home, says Downey. "Those are the best antidotes we know of to decrease drowsy driving." If you still feel your eyes drooping when you're on the road, pull over: Once you're starting to nod off, the safest thing to do is get out of the car.
  • Skip late-night TV. Go to bed at 10:30, says Downey. If you're addicted to The Daily Show, record it and watch it during breakfast, so you aren't out of the loop at the water cooler.
  • Talk to your doctor. It's normal to have a few stressful days at the office or feel overworked and sleep-deprived every so often, but if you notice that you're not feeling better after a number of weeks—or that your sleepiness has become an everyday, all-the-time feeling—you may need to be screened for a sleep disorder. Conditions such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy can make people more prone to falling asleep during daily activities. Or, if it's really your sleep habits and schedule that need adjusting, your doctor may guide you in making lifestyle changes that can help you rest easier.