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The role of sleep in our working lives

  • 5 Min Read

Good sleep plays an important role in our working lives. Poor sleep can undermine important aspects of leadership behaviour and potentially hurt financial performance. Dr. Neil Stanley talks us through what the most common issues that occur as a result of poor sleep, and the importance of prioritising rest and wellbeing.

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According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, there are four types of behaviour that are most commonly associated with high-quality teams:

  • Operating with a strong orientation to results
  • Solving problems effectively
  • Seeking out different perspectives
  • Supporting others

Business tasks rely on higher-order cognitive processes, such as:

  • Problem-solving
  • Reasoning
  • Organising
  • Inhibition
  • Planning
  • Executing plans

These processes are associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain but research has shown that this area appears to be particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation.

Research has confirmed that sleep deprivation impairs the ability to focus attention selectively and that a good night’s sleep leads to new insights: participants who enjoyed one were twice as likely to discover a hidden shortcut in a task as those who didn’t.

Furthermore, sleep has been shown to improve decision making and the ability to weigh the relative significance of different inputs accurately, to avoid tunnel vision and to reduce cognitive bias.

Business relationships naturally require interaction with people and the ability to accurately ‘read’ their emotions. Poor sleep causes you to misinterpret these cues; overreact to emotional events and to express your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice. People who have not had enough sleep are less likely to fully trust someone else. Which is probably a wise thing given that poor sleep has also been shown to contribute to an increase in dishonest behaviour, such a cheating.

It really does matter if you are sleepy at work, data from recent a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) survey showed that workers reported the following were affected by sleepiness

  • Concentration 68%
  • Handling stress 65%
  • Listening 57%
  • Solving problems 57%
  • Decision making 56%
  • Relating to others 38%

They also felt that sleepiness contributed to them

  • Making errors 19%
  • Being late to work 14%
  • Falling asleep at work 7%
  • Staying home from work 4%
  • Getting injured 2%

Employer responsibility 

Some companies have been recently lauded for providing nap pods which may on the face of it seem like a good thing, but isn’t this just a cynical ploy to keep the people in the office for longer?

One company has received glowing reports for allowing people to come in late if they are sleepy, (do they also offer aspirin for when you turn up hungover?) but why are their employees sleepy?

Another company ‘pays’ their staff to sleep well, (actually not to sleep well, but merely to register ‘sleep’ on a fitness tracker for 7hrs a night) but this is far less impressive than it sounds because for every 20 days an employee reports sleeping at least seven hours, he or she can earn $25 — up to $300 in total, which would require 240 nights of good sleep per year. On this basis the company ‘values’ good sleep for their employees at $1.25 a night. The economic cost of poor sleep to a business has been estimated to be approximately $3000 per individual, so essentially the company is willing to ‘pay’ their employees a tenth of the benefit they themselves would possibly get, now won’t that make them feel valued?

One good way for companies to actually make a difference to their employee’s sleep is allow them to only work for the hours which they are paid. If you only pay your employees for 8 hours, why do you expect them to more work more than this, for free? If an employee puts in an extra hour, once in a while, say thank you and buy them a doughnut. If they are consistently working more than an hour extra then pay them for this time, (giving them time off in lieu is just a con, if they are working so hard, they are never going to be able to take it). However, if this is happening regularly it is probable that they are not the only person working extra hours so perhaps you should hire another member of staff! The unspoken threat that your employee needs to do unpaid extra hours if they want to keep their jobs may have been partially true during the recession but now it is simply unfair.

It is also important that there is a company policy that states unless it is a dire emergency you do not communicate with each other outside agreed times, e.g. you cannot be contacted about work more than an hour before or after your shift.

Employee responsibility

However, while there are things that the company can do to help, employees have a much greater responsivity for their own sleep. Your employees have a responsibility to turn up fit for work, and that includes having had sufficient sleep to correctly and efficiently perform their role, to do otherwise means that they become a health and safety liability. In the same way they would not turn up to work drunk they should not turn up to work sleepy, they should certainly not expect your boss to provide a ‘nap-pod’, or for that matter any sympathy, for them to recover from their marathon binge-watching of the latest ‘must-see’ box set or whatever else you were doing.

If you are an 8hr a night person getting the following hours of sleep per night is equivalent to consuming a number of 500ml beers

  • 6 h sleep ≈ 2 beers
  • 4 h sleep ≈ 4 beers
  • 2 h sleep ≈ 5 beers
  • 0 h sleep ≈ 7 beers

Turning up to work under the influence of alcohol would be a disciplinary offence in most workplaces and yet people turn up to work sleepy, even though the impairment of their performance is the same.

Sleep is fundamental to your employee’s health, safety and productivity and your bottom line.

By Dr. Neil Stanley, Independent Sleep Expert and author of How to Sleep Well: The Science of Sleeping Smarter, Living Better and Being Productive

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