What is the Sleep Deficit in Your Workplace Costing?

Featured Image by Elena Lena on Reshot.

My friend used to get up when it was still dark, the sun just beginning to rise, strap on a head lamp and get outside for his early morning walk. His advice was, “Even if you don’t feel like it, put on your gear and go outside. Most days, that will lead to exercising.”

That part I agreed with—good idea to have a ritual to help you get your fitness in!

But he went on to say, “…because you’ll never get that time back,” to which I thought, “you’ll also never get that sleep back!”

What if, on that day, what you most needed was more sleep? And yet, sleep-deprived, you got out of bed, got your gear on and went outside anyway? Maybe on that day the lack of sleep didn’t make much difference, but day after day, if sleep isn’t prioritized, it starts to catch up with you. Research shows that sleep-deprived leaders are less inspiring, more abusive, and not surprisingly, see less engagement in their teams.

For me, it’s always a toss-up—what do I need more of? The sleep or the exercise? Going to bed on time, or getting that project done? The sleep or the work? Competing priorities. In my adult life, most other things have usually won out over sleep. And believe me, I have paid the price! I have been committed for quite a while to look at how I can prioritize sleep.

To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

Our society doesn’t give a lot of value to sleep, and it often ranks below social media, exercise, other tasks, and most definitely, below work. Working harder and longer is still viewed positively, and losing sleep to get more work done is perceived as being OK. And yet, research shows that sleep deprivation reduces productivity—the less you sleep, the less productive you are, leading you to feel the need to work longer to get the same amount done, leading to less sleep. Seems like a vicious cycle to me! And it is really an oxymoron for organizations to strive to increase productivity without valuing sleep.

In a study conducted by Hult International Business School, which surveyed over 1000 professionals at varying levels, the results of sleep deprivation were found to lead to varying physical and emotional side effects. The study, aptly called The Wake Up Call, noted, “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, organizational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep.”

Why We Should Never Question, and Always Prioritize a Good Night’s Sleep

The myriad of afflictions that have been linked to chronic sleep deprivation are well documented. Among them, is the increased risk of developing mental health issues. We used to think it was the other way around—that people with mental health issues developed chronic sleep problems. But, it is now believed that it can work both ways— a lack of sleep can lead to depression, and impairments in memory, thinking, concentration and emotional health. While a complete picture of sleep and mental health is not understood in its entirety, there is evidence to suggest that, “a good night’s sleep helps foster mental and emotional resilience” while poor sleep and sleep disruption, “wreaks havoc on the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation.” (Harvard Health, 2019)

Sleep deprivation is also linked to decreased immunity, a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, and an inability to regulate appetite, leading to weight gain. Studies also show that chronic sleep restriction reduces one’s ability to metabolize glucose, and increases the development of the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to crave carbohydrates.  Some researchers are even suggesting that the obesity epidemic we are seeing worldwide could correlate directly with a lack of sleep.

How A Lack of Sleep Impacts Performance in the Workplace

Issues that impact people impact organizational performance. When workplace disasters strike, we don’t often see headlines about what caused these unfortunate events. And yet, research continues to reveal how sleep loss, and poor sleep quality, can decrease our productivity, impair our decision-making abilities, and cause accidents. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation has been shown to have been a significant factor in oil spills, nuclear disasters and medical errors. Poor sleep reduces our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions such as reasoning. When we aren’t well rested, we aren’t making the decisions we need to be in order to keep ourselves and our employees safe.

A deficit in sleep, if continued for four or five nights in a row can lead to the equivalent cognitive impairment of legal drunkenness. Bronwyn Fryer, contributing Editor to HBR.org, interviewed Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and he made the analogy that we would never say of an alcoholic, “This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!” and yet we continue to give a badge of honour to those impaired by sacrificing their sleep.

Christopher M. Barnes, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, cites a 2017 study by the Center for Creative Leadership, indicating that 42% of leaders get six or less hours of sleep per night. An executive who starts their morning with a breakfast meeting and ends it with a late-night dinner, simply doesn’t have enough time to sleep more than six hours/night if they want to have any kind of life outside of work, and prioritize other events like exercising, spending time with family and winding down before bed. Says Barnes, “A first step for sleep-deprived leaders is to come to terms with just how damaging your fatigue can be—not only to you but also to those who work for you.”

Fatigue and Time Zones

Many organizations require their employees to fly back and forth through different time zones every week. I frequently get asked to speak on the other side of the country, which takes a minimum of 7 hours, catching 2 flights once I leave my home on the west coast. The time zone change may be 3 hours difference, and most clients don’t consider that flying a speaker across time zones the night before the event will not lead to their best performance. I have learned this the hard way by doing just that – flying into a different time zone the night before facilitating a full day’s session. Let’s just say it didn’t go as well as planned.

Another time, when I went on a speaking trip to Argentina, I experienced some serious physical symptoms as a result of sleep deprivation. After a 20-hour flight, I landed and was taken out to dinner by my hosts. I was dropped back at my hotel in the evening to discover they had booked me on another flight, leaving early the next morning to the first city I was speaking in. I would need to be up by 6:00 am! Jet lag makes you wake up at all hours, so now I had two nights of almost no sleep which gave me my worst migraine in memory. By the third destination, I had to cancel the media interviews they had set up for me and sleep the day away in a hotel until my evening presentation. I recovered and was able to speak, but it gave me a new appreciation for what international speakers go through, and I became very cognizant of bringing speakers in early for the conference that I ran, to allow them time to adjust to the time zone.

Encouraging Healthy Sleep Behavior

As an employer, these are some significant reasons to be concerned about the amount of sleep your employees are getting. Some companies are starting to take the sleep epidemic seriously and are providing employees with options and structures that support them in getting the sleep they need.

Take EventMobi, for example, a Toronto based tech company that encourages employees to nap at work. Their experience is that it increases productivity and company morale. For some people, just the time alone is useful, whether or not they sleep. Just a few minutes of rest can be rejuvenating, and most likely lead to more inspiring, creative work. Google was one of the initial organizations to introduce “Nap Pods” at work, and several other companies (even the library of Australia’s University of Queensland!) have incorporated spaces for people to have a mid-day break.

In an interview I did with Organizational Health Expert Mary-Lou MacDonald for my book “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture” we talked about the importance of promoting healthy sleep habits amongst employees. Mary-Lou likened a leader’s job to that of an Olympic athlete, saying:

“Athletes don’t show up at the Olympics without preparation. Creating and supporting a healthy workplace is also a 24-hour job. To reach my potential, what I do at home counts before I even head to work.

“Sometimes people think they can squeak by without paying attention to this, but I witness people dragging themselves around and being cranky because they’re tired. They think they’re entitled to be this way, but I believe it is disrespectful of those around you. As a leader it is your responsibility to set an example for your staff. It’s so important to be positive and turn every situation around the best you can.”

Changing the sleep deprivation epidemic means starting to value sleep. Put a price on it, and a high one! Just like mental health, we need to talk about it more, make getting a good night’s sleep normal, and make it an important business practice.

Are you getting enough sleep personally? What steps can you take today to improve your sleep habits and to promote sleep hygiene within your company?

Seven Practices to Improve Sleep in Your Workplace

  1. As an employer, set expectations around sleep, including how much sleep is important for good cognitive functioning (7-9 hours/night for the average adult) and encourage employees to strive for this. Develop corporate sleep policies. As Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep at Harvard states, “We have rules about drugs, workplace safety hazards, and harassment, but no guidelines on sleep!” Outline what your policies are—is napping OK at work? Is there a quiet room/nap room that can be used? Is it OK to drive after an overnight flight? These are questions to discuss and then outline in your policies to let people know what is acceptable and encouraged or what is not allowed.
  2. Include in your guidelines the expectations for those employees travelling to other time zones, such as arriving two nights in advance of important meetings, and using that day in between for other work, naps and getting accustomed to the time zone before that big meeting with a client. If covering two hotel nights seems excessive, consider what the cost will be of losing that client because your employee could not perform well, or worse, having the employee hurt in an accident because they tried to drive a car to a meeting while sleep deprived. Absolutely outlaw/ban red eye flights to meetings.
  3. Create quiet spaces. Get creative with setting up areas in your office where employees can take a mental break. Often known as “Recharge Rooms” and becoming increasingly trendy, these can include meditation/yoga areas, or nap rooms, and are developed in a quest to create happy, healthy workplaces where employees can thrive.
  4. Look at your work scheduling carefully. Do you need to reduce work schedules to increase safety, productivity and efficiency? This was found to be the case for the Philadelphia Police Department, whereby changing their schedule from a counterclockwise shift rotation to a clockwise rotation that was in-sync with their biological clock, drastically improved the police officers mental alertness and ultimately their job satisfaction. Who wants to see the doctor who is on her 24th hour of on-call work, or be driven by the taxi driver who’s been up all night? Absolutely do not schedule people for more than 60 hours/week.
  5. Provide flexible work schedules and telecommuting. Having people working together in an office can be wonderful for morale, and it’s easy to speak with people when you need them. But do your employees need to be there in person day in and day out? Is there some work, or some projects that can be done from home? Does everyone need to start at the same time, or can some people come in earlier or later? These four companies had great success by providing flexible work schedules for their employees. For some individuals, that extra sleep in the morning may be just what their body needs, allowing them to then work later in the day.
  6. As a leader, model the behaviour you wish to see. This goes for everything of course, but in terms of sleep, if you’re coming in tired and grumpy that is going to rub off on your employees. If you’re sending emails at 3:00 a.m., don’t be surprised if you get responses to those emails at 3:00 a.m. Shift your own practices to be in line with what you want to see. Start your day with a plan on how you will finish on time and leave the office. Just remember, “Your employees are watching you for cues on what is important,” states Barnes.
  7. Focus on your personal sleep habits – you can probably list off several ways you can strive to get a good night’s sleep. Cut the caffeine too late in the day, be consistent with your sleep and wake times, design your own peaceful bedtime routine, and get some daily aerobic exercise. These tips and tricks will ensure you are getting your best sleep possible.

As my career has progressed, I have realized that if I have a big event in a day or two, what is most important leading up to it is getting really good sleep the few nights before. More than any preparation I can do, if I am rested, I have the cognitive ability to do well and to give my best.

There is no question, the lives we lead are busy. The demands of work and family can be extensive and draining, and trying to “fit it all in” can feel overwhelming. But our relationship with sleep needs to change, it needs to be prioritized. In an interview with Dr. Czeizler, Bronwyn Fryer summarized his message about sleep by saying, “If you want to raise performance – both your own and your organization’s—you need to pay attention to this fundamental biological issue.” Sleep is crucial, and our collective lack of it is impacting organizations and workplace health in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

Join us anytime for Deborah’s self-directed course, Leading A Better Place To Work, to learn about thought-provoking topics focused on the latest concepts in workplace health. Learn over 50 daily practices to shift your leadership, your teams, and your organization. Work through this course anytime, from anywhere, on days that suit you best! Check in with us on the live Zoom calls when you can to ask questions and share ideas. To register visit. It’s like book club, with online coaching – fun, informative and hugely practical! We’d love to have you there!
Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

Share This