HomeFuture of WorkHR EffectivenessThe vital importance of sleep in the workplace

The vital importance of sleep in the workplace

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Today is National Sleep Day and we are marking the occasion by discussing how vital sleep really is within your day to day productivity. Arianna Huffington, famous for co-founding the infamous Huffington Post said that we are currently in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis. Vicki Culpin is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School discusses how much impact sleep has on our memories and our overall productivity at work.

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If you were to take a guess, how many times per day do you rely on memory in the workplace, 20 or 30 times? Maybe more? During the working day memory is used for times of appointments, key facts for a report, the names of a new colleague or client, to name but a few. Without procedural memory you wouldn’t be able to remember how to drive, and in fact, without memory, you wouldn’t even recall that you had a job to go to in the first place.

Memory is not just a repository of facts and figures that we can draw upon when we need them), it shapes our very existence; it determines who we think we are, how we view the world  and how we plan for the future, eloquently summarised by Steven Shapin in an article in The New Yorker – ‘time, reality and identity are each curated by memory’.

Given the critical importance of memory, not just to success in organisational life, but to our very being, it is perhaps not surprising that the effect of sleep on memory is one of the most well researched areas in the sleep literature to date.

Good sleep improves memory

The message, from over 150 years of research examining the effect of sleep on learning and memory, is straightforward – good sleep improves memory.  Whilst the reasons why sleep and memory are so closely linked, and the mechanisms by which sleep reduces memory performance may not be fully understood, two critical points remain.  Getting a good night of sleep before learning new material and/or sleeping between learning the new information and needing to recall it, have both been shown to improve memory performance.

In a study where individuals were sleep deprived before being given new material to learn, there was an incredible 40% reduction in their ability to form new memories.  Being tired before trying to learn new information led to these individuals being 40% less effective.

Put this in a work context – after a poor night of sleep, you may be 40% less effective the next day when trying to learn new information at work.  Despite every effort to learn new information, facts, policies, spreadsheets, meeting agenda, factory production line protocol or where your new office is, if you try and store this new information when you are too tired, you may forget nearly half of it.  Or to be more accurate, not store 40% of it in the first place.

Negative memories

Interestingly, in the study described above, not only was overall performance worse for sleep deprived individuals, but this reduction was only across positive and neutral memories.  The negative memories were still remembered.

After poor sleep, we may fail to remember information, but the bias is that the information we do forget is likely to be positive or neutral, with negative memories more likely to be those we do remember.  It may be bad enough feeling that we are 40% less efficient at work, but if we add to that the fact that the information we do recall is more likely to have a negative connotation for us, this is even more concerning, particularly on a personal and motivational level.

Good quality and quantity of sleep can enhance memory performance, and if memory not only enables you to perform your job more effectively, but also ensures you can find your way home from work in the evening, and shapes your very identity as a human, focusing on sleep improvements may be a worthwhile investment for organisations.

The bigger picture

Yet this is only the start.  Along with the impact on learning and memory, it only takes one night of reduced sleep before decision making is affected.  Individuals may make more mistakes on boring, repetitive (and highly learned) decisions, and are more vulnerable to mistakes on high risk (and high reward) decisions. Now let’s add a reduction in innovative thought and creativity, an increase in negative emotions, a lower job satisfaction, less ethical behaviour, increased cyber-loafing and a reduction in discretionary effort.

What about physical health?  Research has found that individuals sleeping for less than 7hrs per night for two weeks prior to being exposed to the cold virus were three times more likely to develop the cold than those sleeping 8 or more hours per night.  In the long term the effects of chronic poor sleep become very serious, with chronic sleep reduction being linked to seven of the fifteen leading causes of death in the US – cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicaemia and hypertension.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that extrapolated to the UK economy as a whole, the financial implications are staggering.  A study conducted by RAND in 2016 reported that if all working age adults slept between 7-9hrs per nigh it would save the UK economy up to £36 billion per year!

Bearing all this in mind, surely sleep something that HR teams should make an organisational priority?

If you ‘remember’ one thing today, make sure it is this: good sleep pays. Both at a personal and organisational level.


Vicki Culpin is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School

‘The Business of Sleep:  How sleeping better can transform your career,’ by Vicki Culpin, is out on 8 March 2018 (Bloomsbury).








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