You hear me say it all the time: sleep directly affects performance. The quality and amount of sleep you get on a regular basis affects your cognitive sharpness, your emotional balance, your stamina and motivation, your relationships and your perceptions of people, situations, and experiences.
In the workplace, sleep remains an overlooked factor—and an under-utilized tool. Here are 10 things most employers probably don’t know about sleep, how it impacts their employees and their organizations.
Working within your chronotype productivity zones drives individual performance
If given a moment to think about it, just about everyone would say they know morning people and night people. We all have a broad and instinctive sense that different chronotypes exist, and play a role in daily functioning. But most people—including most bosses and organizational leaders—don’t truly understand just how powerfully our individual chronotypes influence how well we do things, depending on the timing of when we do them.
From fielding the emails in our inboxes, to learning new information for an upcoming project, chronotypes point to the optimal times to take on different parts of our work. For each chronotype, there’s a best time to give a speech, to make a decision, to ask—and be asked for—a raise or a promotion. Regardless of the profession you’re in, understanding your chronotype can fundamentally change how you approach your work, opening up new levels of success, ease, achievement and fulfillment.
Don’t know your chronotype yet? Take my quiz to find out: www.chronoquiz.com
Share it with your employer, too!
Sleep loss is expensive. I mean REALLY expensive.
A 2016 investigation by the Rand Corporation found sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy more than $400 billion every single year. Take a moment to let that sink in. That’s more than 2% of GDP, a staggering number that reflects how widespread and ingrained sleep problems are in U.S. society and around the world. (The Rand study also examined the costs of sleep in four other nations: the UK, Germany, Japan, and Canada.) The costs of sleeplessness come in several forms including absenteeism, diminished productivity, increased accidents, and employer healthcare costs.
Other big takeaways from the Rand study?
Poor sleep costs US companies more than 1.2 million sick days every year.
A US working adult who sleeps less than an average of 6 hours a night has a 13 percent higher mortality risk than an adult who sleeps between 7-9 hours.
It’s not only big corporations that are affected financially by sleeplessness. Every organization, at every size, faces a financial cost when employees don’t consistently get the rest they need.
Weekend catch-up sleep doesn’t really work
Any employer who thinks employees can push sleep to the margins during the week and make up for it on a weekend has got it wrong. Some small amount of weekend recovery sleep can help keep a sleep debt in check—I recommend my patients vary their bedtimes and wake times by less than 1 hour on the weekend. (That’s 1 hour total, not an hour at night and in the morning.)
But relying on weekends to replenish the sleep you miss during the work week can have negative effects on health and performance. Research shows sleeping in on weekends can undermine metabolic healthy, making it more likely we’ll gain weight. Weekend sleep messes with the body’s precisely-timed bio clock—and with it, the circadian rhythms that have such a major impact on energy, focus, and mental performance. Studies like this one from 2013 have shown that weekend recovery sleep fails to bring cognitive performance back to pre-sleep-deprivation levels.
It doesn’t take much sleep deprivation to reduce productivity
Small deficits in sleep add up to significant problems for productivity. Losing out on as little as 30 minutes a night of the sleep you need can affect performance, including motivation, focus, reaction time, the ability to keep multiple tasks on track, as well as memory and decision making.
A 2018 study examined the ways different sleep issues affected work productivity. That study found that people with mild insomnia had a 58% productivity loss. People who experienced daytime sleepiness had a 50% loss in productivity. And people who snore lost between 19-34% of their productivity.
A vicious cycle often develops, where being tired leads to work taking longer, which leads to less sleep and a greater loss in productivity.
Light exposure matters to performance
Too many organizations and leaders still aren’t thinking about the environmental light—both natural and artificial— their employees experience at work. Daytime light exposure has an impact on cognitive function and mood, and therefore on performance. Research shows that a lack of access to natural light exposure in the workplace has effects on memory and attention, increases stress and decreases job satisfaction. Employees who work in windowless spaces, or who lack exposure to artificial light during the day, are more likely to have problems sleeping at night. They also may be more prone to errors.
There’s also the issue of artificial light exposure, coming most abundantly from screens. While exposure to artificial light early in the day can be alerting, helpful to daytime performance and nighttime sleep, most of us take in too much artificial light exposure over the course of day and night. Today’s artificial light—energy-efficient and digital—is rich in blue light, which is especially aggressive in disrupting sleep and circadian rhythms. The over-consumption of light at the wrong times is a major problem for sleep and health, and has significant consequences for performance. Helping employees manage their light exposure—getting access to natural sunlight, and limiting their exposure to blue light, especially as the day wears on—is an investment of time and effort that promises a terrific return for organizations, in the form of healthier, more rested and productive employees. Here’s what you need to know about blue light blocking glasses, and the pair I’ve developed with eyewear company Luminiere.
Poor sleep compromises ethics
Managers and leaders who want trustworthy, ethical teams ought to invest in their employees’ healthy sleep. Fascinating research reveals how sleeplessness undermines ethical behavior. Lack of sleep weakens self-control and judgment, and clouds moral awareness. What’s moral awareness? It’s our ability to recognize that morality has a place in any given situation or circumstance. Our moral awareness allows us to gauge both our own morality and the morality of others. Research show our moral awareness doesn’t remain at a fixed level all the time. It ebbs and flows, and lack of sleep can weaken moral awareness, diminishing our capacity to recognize the ethics of any given moment.
Sleep loss inhibits creativity
REM sleep—and the vivid dreaming that accompanies this sleep stage—has long been linked to creativity and insight. Recent research suggests that both REM and the stages of non-REM sleep work together to stimulate the creative mind, helping the brain make interesting, unexpected connections from the vast array of information it absorbs. Creativity, like most cognitive processes, follows circadian rhythms. For every chronotype, there are best (and worst) times to brainstorm, when the mind is primed for insight and also loose, even a little distracted. Different chronotypes do their most productive big-picture thinking at different times of day, too.
Smart employers will use knowledge of chronotypes to enable employees to do their best creative, innovative work—by giving them the flexibility and support to schedule that work for the right times. (To learn more about the best times to do everything—at work and in the rest of life—check out my book, The Power of When.)
Sleeplessness skyrockets liability risks
Employees are safer, less prone to injury, accident and errors, when they are consistently well rested. There are serious public safety issues associated with sleep-deprived workers in industries such as transportation, health care, and law enforcement. Many of the workers in these sectors work rotating shifts, which compounds the risk for poor sleep and compromised performance—I wrote about one such frightening public safety situation recently.
But accidents and dangerous, costly errors can happen at in any workplace. Research indicates that approximately 274,000 workplace accidents and errors each year are directly attributable to insomnia alone. Among U.S. workers with obstructive sleep apnea, risk for a workplace accident almost doubles.
Sleep supports strong teamwork
Ever head into work after a poor night of sleep and wish you could just not talk to anyone that day? Our ability to relate well to others, act collaboratively, and communicate effectively are all dependent on sleep. I talked not long ago about how sleep problems create social anxiety and isolation. Poor quality and insufficient sleep alter the way the brain processes and responds to social cues, and makes us less able to express ourselves. Not sleeping well diminishes our capacity for empathy.
Naps are part of a productive workplace
I’m encouraged as I see the view of napping on the job continue to change. More organizations are integrating rest into their employees work lives by giving space, time, and support for napping. Still, we’ve got a long way to go.
Well timed and appropriately used, naps can increase safety, productivity and performance in any workplace. The best workplace naps are timed in alignment with an individual’s chronotype and work schedule to restore mental, emotional, and physical acuity while on the job.
To get the biggest benefits from napping, the length of a nap must also be timed. Naps that are too short won’t deliver a sufficient immediate cognitive benefit; naps that are too long can employees workers feeling sluggish and not well able to re-connect with work. A 20-minute nap is optimal for boosting brain function, without interfering with your bio clock and your eventual night of sleep. I’ve written about how all of us can use naps to our best advantage.
Employers—sleep matters! The more workplaces value sleep, the happier and more productive their employees will be.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor
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Breus, Michael J. (2018, September 11). The 2-way street between sleep and loneliness that’s a big deal for your health. Retrieved from: https://thesleepdoctor.com/2018/09/11/the-2-way-street-between-loneliness-and-sleep-thats-a-very-big-deal-for-your-health/
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