Worker sleeping, colour

Burning the candle at both ends: why a tired workforce is bad for business

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Technology allows us to speak to colleagues on the other side of the world in real-time, while smartphones enable people to be on call and respond to emails 24/7. The by-product of such a culture? A sleep-deprived workforce and a nosedive in productivity.

Lack of sleep has a damaging effect on health and wellbeing. We all know this. But despite the risks, the notion of entrepreneurial wakefulness is as pervasive as ever in business and politics.

Elon Musk claims to have worked 120-hour weeks in the past. Apple CEO Tim Cook rises at 3:45am every day to check his emails. Richard Branson gets five or six hours of sleep a night, as do Bill Clinton and Jack Dorsey. For serious entrepreneurs, an eight-hour sleep is often seen as a luxury that they cannot afford to entertain.

While their industriousness is admirable, such a cavalier approach to rest is both misguided and dangerous. In his book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, the renowned sleep expert Matthew Walker emphatically rebuffs the gung-ho attitude of Musk et al: “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.”

The very idea that the business world generally continues to value the sleep-deprived CEO as a paragon of productivity is profoundly cynical. In reality, sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on just about every aspect of leadership, from charisma and management to decision-making and communication.

For business leaders who frequently use their charisma to gain a competitive foothold, the amount of sleep they get can be make-or-break for a business. And when a business’ people fall into the same trap, the effect can be even more disastrous.

Before we delve into the bottom-line business ramifications of sleep deprivation, it’s first worth reiterating the insidious impact that even one night of poor sleep can have on the human body.

The impact of sleep deprivation on the human body

Not getting sufficient sleep negatively affects just about every aspect of human health.

After a week of poor sleep, blood sugar levels are disrupted so significantly that a doctor would classify a previously healthy individual as pre-diabetic.

Sleep is also vital for stabilising our emotional and mental health. Without sleep, the emotional systems of the brain become hyperactive and irrational. Deep within our brains, a structure called the amygdala is the central region for the generation of strong emotional reactions. In people who have a full night’s sleep, their amygdala exhibits a controlled degree of reactivity. However, in sleep-deprived people, the amygdala is 60% more active. A lack of sleep causes us to become emotionally agitated.

A sleep-deprived brain is more likely to misinterpret facial expressions and tone of voice, which can lead to overreactions to emotional events. Sleep-deprived people are more likely to express feelings in a negative way and less likely to trust another person. Aside from the primary impact on our own health, sleep deprivation has a secondary impact on the people we live and work with.

Moreover, sleep deficiency has a catastrophic impact on our cognitive abilities. People who do not get enough sleep are more prone to lapses in concentration and attention, while their ability to memorise details and perform tasks is also severely hindered. Given that work is often performance-based, this has drastic consequences on productivity.

Insufficient sleep has been linked with seven of the fifteen leading causes of death in the United States: cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicaemia and hypertension. Lack of sleep is a slow-motion killer.

An individual who sleeps, on average, between six and seven hours a night has a 7% higher mortality risk than someone within the healthy sleep range of seven to nine hours. This risk rises to 13% for people who get less than six hours of sleep a night. The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

The research is clear. Every aspect of our health and wellbeing is negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. It’s time for all of us to stand up and take note.

How sleep deprivation affects business

“It is common for managers and colleagues to look at a lack of focus or motivation, irritability, and bad decision-making as being caused by poor training, organisational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep.”

Vicki Culplin & Ayiesha Russell, The Wake-up Call: The Importance of Sleep in Organisational Life

The age-old myth that sacrificing sleep boosts productivity is problematic. According to research, 37.9% of people have reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day or at work in the last 30 days.

In the US, one in three adults are not getting the recommended seven or more hours of sleep on a regular basis.

On a company-wide level, the Sleep Matters Initiative at Brigham Health for the National Safety Council estimated that an average-sized Fortune 500 company with approximately 52,000 people is losing about $80 million annually due to fatigue.

According to research by the RAND Corporation, the US loses an equivalent of around 1.2 million working days due to insufficient sleep a year. In Japan, an average of 600,000 working days are lost annually. The UK and Germany both lose just over 200,000 working days.

The same RAND study found that this lost productivity costs the US economy up to $411 billion a year, or 2.28% of GDP. In Japan, the cost of insufficient sleep adds up to $138 billion, or 2.92% of GDP. Germany and the UK don’t fare much better, with losses of up to $60 billion (1.56% of GDP) and up to $50 billion (1.86% of GDP), respectively.

Here are some more sobering figures related to the business impact of sleep:

  1. Sleep deprivation is linked to a higher mortality risk. An individual who sleeps an average of fewer than six hours per night has a 13% higher mortality risk than someone who sleeps between seven and nine hours (RAND Corporation).
  2. Losing ninety minutes of sleep decreases alertness the following day by one third.
  3. A single bad night’s sleep reduces productivity by 57% (The Sleep School).
  4. The loss of productivity associated with poor sleep quality costs US business $2,280 per person (Harvard Medical School).
  5. If a person is awake for 17 to 19 hours, their individual performance on a range of tasks is equivalent to a person with a 0.05% blood alcohol level the definition of being legally drunk in many countries (A.M. Williamson & A.M. Feyer, 2000)
  6. People feel less engaged with their work when their leaders have a bad night’s sleep (Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley).

No matter where you look, lack of sleep is disastrous for business.

The takeaway

The impact of sleep deprivation on business is immense. Organisations that do not actively encourage better sleep among their people will unintentionally facilitate less productivity, more human error, a noticeable breakdown in communication, and an increased risk of accidents among people who operate heavy machinery. Ultimately, the business’ bottom line will take a serious hit.
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