• Opinion: What HR needs to know about how sleep affects performance

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  • 16 Feb 2017
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Kenneth Nowack explains the link between fatigue and low productivity, and what employers can do to support tired employees

Organisations are increasingly committed to helping employees quit smoking, lose weight, become more fit and improve their quality of sleep and rest. Lack of sleep and fatigue contribute to both performance deficits and bottom line costs for companies, and the problem is widespread. A recent survey of more than 2,000 British adults by the Royal Society for Public Health found that the average employee is only getting 6.8 hours of sleep a night. Additionally, analysis by RAND Europe estimates that the effects of sleep deprivation on health and productivity are costing the UK up to £40bn each year, which is approximately 2 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Across an 85-year lifespan, an individual may sleep nearly 250,000 hours, or more than 10,000 full days. Our research reveals significant sleep impairment in working adults: in a random sample of 1,326 workers, 35.7 per cent said they ‘often’ or ‘always’ receive less sleep than required because of staying up too late or getting up too early. Almost 22 per cent reported being tired during the day because of poor-quality sleep (either falling asleep took too long or they are unable to stay asleep). Finally, slightly more than 8 per cent reported missing an entire night or large proportion of sleep in the past month because of work or play activities.

Several studies, including one of our own, suggest that lack of sleep can bring out the worst in bosses, turning ‘lovable stars’ into ‘competent jerks’. A study by Jane Gaultney, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, explored weekend to weekday sleep differences in 379 business leaders, finding that leaders who had the biggest change in weekend to weeknight sleep quantity received significantly lower evaluations on their leadership effectiveness from colleagues and peers.  

Another study by Christopher Barnes, associate professor at the University of Washington, and colleagues found that daily sleep quality – not quantity – directly influenced leaders’ self-control. Those who were sleep deprived were rated as significantly more abusive and toxic in interpersonal interactions. Our own recently published research with 104 senior leaders found that lack of sleep was significantly correlated with lower scores on a validated measure of emotional intelligence. Peers and colleagues saw the sleep-deprived leaders as demonstrating significantly less empathy, warmth and interpersonal effectiveness than those leaders reporting little or no sleep loss over a three-month period.

Employers should consider making a number of interventions to help improve employee wellbeing and help staff cope with today’s wired and ‘always on’ culture, which contributes to lack of sleep and serious fatigue deficits on the job. Each of these actions may have a tremendous return on investment in terms of both financial and performance outcomes:

  • include sleep education/information within company-sponsored employee wellness/health promotion programmes (eg sleep hygiene and disorders);

  • provide stress management programmes (eg mindfulness meditation, yoga) to enhance health and wellbeing;

  • include a sleep diagnostic in company-sponsored health risk appraisals;

  • revisit/revise policies around scheduling (eg rotating shift work schedules) to minimise sleepiness and fatigue;

  • revise/revisit policies and expectations around the number of after-hours/holiday time emails and employee communications;

  • offer quiet spaces and napping space for employees to catch up on sleep during their time at the office;

  • include presenteeism, job stress and workload metrics in annual engagement surveys, and explore meaningful interventions to address current issues and concerns;

  • review and revise travel policies to encourage flexibility in schedules to maximise sleep and alertness (eg start times for meetings and ‘red eye’ flights); and

  • reward supervisors for fostering and reinforcing a recovery culture (eg creating policies to limit communication after hours).


Further reading

Kenneth Nowack is a licensed psychologist and president of Envisia Learning

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  • Lack of sleep has a detrimental impact on cognition - how we think, concentrate, remember and make good decisions.

    Measuring cognitive health and performance could help identify sleep related problems sooner rather than later.