The Sleeping Shepherd, Aubry-Lecomte (1787-1858) after a painting by Raymond Monvoisin (Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Ideas for Leaders #622

Why Sleep Matters

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Key Concept

Sleep deprivation is impacting the professional performance, health, and social and emotional well-being of workers of all ages. Companies must take the issue of poor sleep seriously, rejecting cultures that encourage late night working hours and conveying to their employees the personal and organizational benefits of quality sleep.

Idea Summary

It is well known that we are sleeping less than we ever have. To explore the impact of this lack of sleep on performance at work, two researchers from Hult International Business School surveyed more than 1,000 professionals of all hierarchical levels and industries.

The researchers, Vicki Culpin and Ayiesha Russell, initially categorized the results based on how sleep deprivation might impact three aspects of the lives of professionals: business performance, health, and social and emotional life. The results showed a definite impact of lack of sleep in all three of these domains.

In the area of work performance, for example, sleep loss impacts the ability to have difficult conversations, generate new ideas, and manage competing demands, among other consequences. Feeling lethargic all of the time and slower reaction time were some of the health consequences of sleep deprivation. Relating to social and emotional life, lack of sleep made respondents have less energy, have difficulty motivating themselves and have the tendency to feel frustrated with themselves or others more easily.

Based on further analysis of the survey responses, Culpin and Russell determined that the results could be even more meaningfully clustered into five themes related to organizational life.

The first impact theme was business performance, which they split into “task” aspects and “emotional” aspects. Many respondents found that sleep loss caused them to be unable to focus on work tasks, for example. On the emotional side, respondents were more irritable and more stressed at work.

A second theme that emerged from the results were the generational differences in sleep deprivation among boomers, generation X and generation Y. Specifically, the study showed that boomers might sleep less than the younger generations and yet felt less of an impact from the lack of sleep. One reason might be age — older people can recover more quickly from sleep deprivation. Another reason is that boomers may be reluctant to acknowledge any ‘sign of weakness’.

The third impact theme highlighted by the researchers centred on motivation, both the motivation of self and the motivation of others. The research showed that nearly three quarters of respondents found it difficult to motivate themselves due to sleep loss. Related to the motivation of others, respondents found that they were less mindful of their impact on others, and found it difficult to motivate others.

One of the more intriguing outcomes of the survey was the existence of what the researchers termed secret symptoms. In essence, these are physical symptoms — such as physical pain, higher or lower metabolism, or symptoms related to cardiovascular and nervous systems — that at first glance might not be linked to lack of sleep. These symptoms ranged from panic attacks for some of the respondents to migraines and headaches for nearly three quarters of the respondents, and cold and flu symptoms for nearly all.

The final impact theme focused on how lack of sleep impacted senior leaders. The research showed that senior leaders reported a drop in performance in key leadership skills. For example, lack of sleep made them less able to analyse information, less effective at formulating opinions, and less able to make decisions or hold strategic conversations. 

Business Application

In some ways, lack of sleep is becoming a virtue in the corporate world: long hours and 24/7 access is how an ambitious professional can demonstrate commitment and the willingness to go above and beyond. This study proves that while sleeplessness may seem impressive, in actuality both the professional and the professional’s organization are undermining their success.

Organizations have to move away from a culture of sleeplessness. Instead of pushing their professionals to work longer and longer hours, companies should be encouraging rest and recuperation as much as hard work. The best way to achieve this is to bring the issue of sleeplessness out into the open. Organizations need to put in place policies and work practices that recognize the importance of sleep as a foundation for the cognitive, physical and social and emotional well-being of individuals — which translates into a higher level of business performance.

The generational differences indicate that decision makers, including HR leaders in organizations, must focus on younger professionals (who say they feel the impact of sleeplessness most intently) and older professionals (who may be equally impacted but fear the consequences of their honesty on this issue).

A company wants to enable their professionals to work at their highest level. A company must also take some responsibility for the health and safety of their employees. For both these reasons, companies must be proactive in mitigating the effect of lack of sleep.

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