The effects of anticipating a high-stress task on sleep and performance during simulated on-call work

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On-call work is used to manage around the clock working requirements in a variety of industries. Often, tasks that must be performed while on-call are highly important, difficult and/or stressful by nature and, as such, may impact the level of anxiety that is experienced by on-call workers. Heightened anxiety is associated with poor sleep, which affects next-day cognitive performance. Twenty-four male participants (20–35 years old) spent an adaptation, a control and two counterbalanced on-call nights in a time-isolated sleep laboratory. On one of the on-call nights they were told that they would be required to do a speech upon waking (high-stress condition), whereas on the other night they were instructed that they would be required to read to themselves (low-stress condition). Pre-bed anxiety was measured by the State Trait Anxiety Inventory form x-1, and polysomnography and quantitative electroencephalogram analyses were used to investigate sleep. Performance was assessed across each day using the 10-min psychomotor vigilance task (09:30 hours, 12:00 hours, 14:30 hours, 17:00 hours). The results indicated that participants experienced no significant changes in pre-bed anxiety or sleep between conditions. However, performance on the psychomotor vigilance task was best in the high-stress condition, possibly as a result of heightened physiological arousal caused by performing the stressful task that morning. This suggests that performing a high-stress task may be protective of cognitive performance to some degree when sleep is not disrupted.

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