You Don’t Snooze, You Lose

Even a small amount of lost sleep can undermine your work performance or turn your kindly boss into a tyrant. Is it time for organizations to consider on-the-job naps?

The essentials

Sleep deprivation is a badge of honour in today’s frenetic organizations. It is hard to avoid the attitude that dedicated people should be willing to trade sleep for work, that naps are a form of loafing, and that missing a few hours of sleep is no big deal. Management researchers are debunking these myths, linking poor sleep to important organizational outcomes such as underperformance, unethical behaviour, "cyberloafing," and low work engagement. In this conversation with QSB Insight, Christopher Barnes of University of Washington’s Foster School of Business provides an overview of what we now know about the links between sleep and work and what organizations can do to prevent or mitigate the negative impacts. Barnes spoke at a conference on sleep and work held at Queen's School of Business.

Cyberloafing, “Jerky” Behaviour, and Other Woes of Sleep-Deprived Employees 

If you look at industries like transportation, then it’s obvious what happens when people are sleep-deprived and on the job. You see a spectacular crash and there’s clear evidence of what happens when employees are sleepy. We don’t have such visual evidence for other industries but the effects are still there. Research is starting to uncover what some of these look like. In my own research, we show that when people are short on sleep, they are more likely to behave unethically. That can take many forms depending on the organization; it could be theft, for example, which is a huge concern in the retail industry.   

One effect of interest to knowledge workers is cyberloafing. Cyberloafing is what it sounds like: you’re on the job paid to work but you’re really on YouTube looking at videos of cute kittens or checking on fantasy football. The data are very clear: once people are short on sleep, they are more likely to spend larger portions of their work time cyberloafing. Even if we’re talking about a few minutes per employee per day, that aggregates pretty quickly to a lot of lost value. Other outcomes of poor sleep include being less willing to help others in the workplace, being less engaged at work, and lower job satisfaction.

"When the boss has a bad night’s sleep and is a jerk towards subordinates, the subordinates tend to withdraw more from work on that day"

There are two avenues through which poor sleep manifests in the workplace. One is that people suffer a lack of self-control, perhaps for some physiological reasons including impairment in the prefrontal cortex (the part of brain responsible for self-control). As a result, behaviours in the workplace that rely on self-control suffer. We see this in something as mundane as making the right dietary choices to things as important as behaving ethically.

There’s also an avenue through mood. Data indicate that when people don’t get enough sleep or get a poor quality of sleep, their mood suffers. A lack of sleep can make people more easily irritated, more easily frustrated or angered, more aggressive in their actions, more depressed. People who are sleep-deprived or suffering from poor quality sleep can see their mood go through more ups and downs because they have a hard time keeping an even keel. That’s important in the workplace: if I become really angry and then really sad, it can be a mystery to colleagues. 

Some of my own research shows that, partly through lack of self-control and perhaps mood effects, supervisors can exhibit what I call jerky behaviour. In one study, we show that poor sleep quality on a given night can lead to abusive behaviour by the boss the next day. When the boss has a bad night’s sleep and is a jerk towards subordinates, the subordinates tend to withdraw more from work on that day. Other times, when the boss gets a good night’s sleep and is nice the following day, employees are more engaged. 

Small Amounts of Lost Sleep Have an Outsized Impact

Sleep deprivation is far more prevalent than most of us believe. Somewhere around one-third of Americans get fewer than six hours of sleep on a given night. There are clear data that show if you sleep six hours or less, there are negative consequences in the workplace. This is also a downward trend across the decades, which would suggest younger people are on the leading edge of this sleep spiral. This is consistent with what we see with sleep and technology. Some of my own research shows that using smartphones, tablets, and laptops late at night inhibits the process of falling asleep and staying asleep. Younger generations are the ones most used to using these devices frequently.

One point commonly overlooked is that small amounts of lost sleep matter. There’s a study that shows restricting people to five hours of sleep a night for four nights in a row produces performance deficits comparable to blood alcohol content of 0.06 percent. There’s also a study that shows that a six-minute nap is enough to improve memory on a learning task. My own research shows that 40 minutes of lost sleep is associated with a spike of 5.6 percent in workplace injuries. Small amounts of lost sleep matter, so people shouldn’t fool themselves: they are sabotaging themselves and their success in the workplace.

What Managers and Organizations Can Do to Mitigate Ill Effects

Ideally, we can prevent some of these issues in the first place. Part of this is simple, like having work schedules that are consistent with healthy sleep patterns. Whenever possible, people should be working during the day and not working extended shifts. Beyond that, stress is an important factor in sleep. If you are in a stressful workplace, this will create difficulties to falling asleep and staying asleep. 

Managers can also educate their employees. One avenue is sleep hygiene: having a consistent bed time and wake time, not using electronic devices at night, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol before bedtime. Quite a bit of literature indicates that your bed should only be used for sleep and sex and everything else should be banished from the bed so as to not weaken the association between bed and sleep.  

"A lot of work cultures see napping as loafing rather than restorative time that can help people be more productive later in the day"

That said, a lot of workplaces face constraints and people will come to work short on sleep. So what can we do to mitigate these effects? There are a few strategies. One is naps. A lot of work cultures see napping as loafing rather than restorative time that can help people be more productive later in the day. Naps can be a powerful tool to help them be better employees. Two companies, Huffington Post and Google, are famous for bringing in nap pods. But too often, firms actively discourage naps at work. I come from a military background, with a macho culture, and naps are definitely not something that’s considered normal or encouraged but something to be punished. 

On top of that, we can try and rotate sleep-deprived workers among different tasks to keep them fresh, give them periodic breaks of 15 minutes. We can have people work together to catch each other’s errors; this happens best when people have overlapping expertise. 

There’s also technology that helps. An obvious one is caffeine. I’d say be careful with this one. Caffeine has a mitigating effect for lost sleep on work outcomes, but you can create long-term dependencies that can become a bigger problem. For people who suffer from sleep apnea, there are medical devices such as Continuous Positive Air Pressure masks. 

Just sharing some of this information with managers and giving them an opportunity to implement the ideas allows them to add a lot of value to their firms.

New Areas of Sleep-Work Research

We’re starting to get answers to the question of what happens when people work while they’re sleepy: helping, ethics, engagement, abusive supervision, work injuries. The next step we’re starting to look at is, What are some interventions we can do to influence these effects? I’m working on a study where we’re using a short mindfulness exercise just before bedtime in the hopes it will help people sleep better and be more effective as employees the next day. In the future, I’d like to look at other interventions, perhaps nap studies, to help address some of these problems.

Interview by Alan Morantz

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