• Managing people

How Sleep Affects Productivity at Work

New research is a wake-up call for leaders and their junior colleagues

Friday 12 August 2016


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It may come as no surprise that in our 24/7, globally-networked, digitally-enhanced working lives we have less time for sleep. But research from Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, showing that lack of sleep is a hidden threat to high performing corporate culture still comes as a wake-up call.

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It is a great irony of the modern world that advances in communication technology which we once thought would ease our working lives seem to have had the reverse effect. The day the postman was replaced by the fax machine our working lives sped-up. Today with almost universal instant communication around the globe the speed has accelerated again and with it the pressure to perform to stay up with the competition. All of which is contributing to sleep deprivation becoming an increasing characteristic of today’s working environment for professionals.

The researchers Dr Vicki Culpin and Ayiesha Russell argue that there is an urgent need to challenge the growing corporate culture of sleeplessness; a problem they believe is often under-reported due to work related performance pressures.

A lack of sleep can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s health as well as their social and emotional well-being. In a work context the effect is on performance and this research found that some tasks were reported as being affected more than others and that there were variations across age groups.

Motivation to learn (60%); having difficult conversations (48%); generating new ideas (60%); and understanding new concepts quickly (52%) were most frequently cited by respondents as ‘like me’ or ‘very like me’.

The ability to manage competing demands (44%); staying focused in meetings (45%); and remaining focused on daily activities (43%) are three behaviours that were also noted as being frequently impacted. These results demonstrate that the cognitive processes of maintaining and switching attention between tasks is particularly challenging for professionals with insufficient sleep.

Although all age groups in the survey reported poorer sleep duration than the minimum requirement recommended by the American Sleep Association, the data suggests that organizations should focus on younger, and less senior, staff, who within this research have expressed feeling the negative effects of sleep loss to the greatest extent. Organizations also need to consider why older, and more senior individuals are reporting fewer effects.

The researchers surveyed over 1,000 professionals across all managerial and professional levels, and a variety of sectors, on their sleeping habits.

The fundamental findings were:

  1. Leaders and more junior individuals are getting less sleep per night than the minimum recommended amount.
  2. Leaders are not getting any less sleep than junior workers contrary to what was expected.
  3. Leaders are reporting less negative effects than junior colleagues despite getting the same amount of sleep. (This may be for a variety of reasons. E.g. because leaders develop better coping skills, or because junior colleagues struggle more due to lower job control and autonomy, etc.)

Lack of employee engagement, focus or motivation, irritability and bad decision making are often thought to be caused by poor training, organizational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep.

The report from Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School concludes with a valuable set of recommendations for individuals in terms of managing their personal sleep and for HR professionals and business leaders encouraging them to put sleep firmly on the agenda.

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Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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