How sleep deprivation reduces productivity at work


Organisations should realise that sleep impacts cognitive performance, and lack of it may jeopardise relationships between leaders and their teams. 

In today’s hyper-connected, competitive world, it is not uncommon for employees to take work to bed and lose sleep over it. Modern professionals are busy chasing goals—every hour, every minute. As a result, they lack the time to pause and look after their body and mind. Most do not mind taking work back home and stay up late to meet deadlines.

According to a recent survey by global staffing firm, Accountemps, more than 40 per cent of professionals in the US, report that sleep often eludes them because they cannot get their jobs off their minds.

Most respondents suffer from sleep deprivation as they are overwhelmed by the feeling of job responsibility. Majority of them have stayed awake to fix business issues or think about their relationship with employees. Some spend sleepless nights for fear of being fired, while others blame their bosses for their sleeplessness.

In yet another interesting survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Glassdoor, it became evident that three in four (or 74 per cent) employees in the US get less than eight hours of sleep on a typical work night, averaging just 6.9 hours of sleep.

The story is no different in India. A survey conducted by Philips early this year has proved that Indians don’t consider sleep as their priority. 10 per cent of adults reported that work hours overlap with sleep time, which indicates that shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a key barrier to sleep.

Do organisations even realise the impact of sleep on performance and productivity?

Researches have shown that most work schedules today are completely out of sync with natural body clocks, and experts have urged employers to pay heed to this issue.

It is a well-known fact that sleep deprivation impacts cognitive performance. Research shows that when an individual stays awake longer than 18 consecutive hours, it hampers many physical and mental functions — such as short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, reaction speed, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation.

Most companies overlook sleep, which is a ‘strategic resource’, according to a research by Christopher Barnes, a management professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. His study reveals that when work schedules are aligned with natural sleep patterns, employees produce higher quality work as it keeps them focused, less stressed and happy.

Sleep-deprived employees are bound to make mistakes and are also prone to workplace injuries. Barnes’ research has also revealed that when individuals are sleep deprived, their ability to resist temptation declines, and in that state, the likelihood of unethical behaviour is more. Sleep can drastically impact individual performance. In fact, its effect is similar to someone who is too inebriated to drive.

Those suffering from sleeplessness are less creative and hardly innovative. This can be a big issue in industries where innovation is the lifeblood and an absolute necessity for survival.

Professors from Indiana University and the University of Washington attempted to understand the effect of sleep on the relationship of leaders and their followers. Their studies revealed that sleep deprivation makes it difficult for leaders to remain calm. And this is a common experience because lack of sleep undermines the parts of the brain involved in regulating emotions.

Clearly, getting good sleep is important for individuals as well as businesses. Sleep deficiency can result in heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should get seven to nine hours of sleep to stay productive.

Most corporate policies prohibit smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual harassment at work. However, there is a lot left to be done in terms of regulating work hours and work load. Employees in many organisations continue to stay active around the clock, inducing the kind of stress levels that can result in substance or drug abuse and inappropriate or unethical behaviour.

Organisations should offer a reasonable work schedule to ensure their staff members get adequate sleep. Offering more flexibility at work and cutting down on the number and frequency of e-mails and unnecessary meetings are some steps in the right direction. Tired employees are not only unproductive but pose a huge risk to business as well. Therefore, employees should be allowed time to recharge.

Greek-American author and co-founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington believes that success comes only to those who enjoy a good night’s sleep. In one of her talks, she urged the listeners to “…shut your eyes and discover the great ideas that lie inside you; shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.”


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