Even before the uncertainties of COVID-19, Americans were underslept. And there’s a lot of research that shows we’ve been quite unproductive as a result.
The current crisis has introduced even more threats to our sleep and productivity.
Anxieties keep us up at night, and distractions from working from home, burnout from a lack of boundaries between our professional and personal lives, and the cognitive overload of Zoom are all killing our focus.
Now, more than ever, it’s imperative to understand the connection between sleep and productivity and invest in your team’s rest.
The Effect of Sleep Debt on Productivity
The prefrontal cortex, which directs what psychologists call “executive functioning,” is particularly impaired by a lack of sleep. Problem-solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, and executing plans — processes essential to performing our jobs — are all the domain of the prefrontal cortex.
The multinational professional services network, Deloitte, has escalated sleep deprivation to a “business issue,” supporting the scientific community’s findings that “people’s ability to learn, concentrate, and retain information is greatly impacted by how well-rested they are.”
And the more sleep deprived you are, the worse the consequences. This is called Sleep Debt. Sleep debt is how much sleep you miss, or owe your body, relative to your need for sleep over the course of 14 plus days.
There are six main ways sleep debt affects productivity.
Sleep debt causes mental lapses in concentration. Researchers found a 400% increase in mental lapses following just one night of missed sleep, and it was the same result for participants who slept for only 4 hours, six nights in a row.
Sleep debt Increases response times and errors in tasks that require sustained attention. This gets even worse if the task is time sensitive or goes on for a long time. Research has tied sleep deprivation to an 11% increase in response times. This is equivalent to the increase you would see from someone with a 0.08 BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), that’s the limit where you are considered legally impared.
Sleep debt makes learning new information and acquiring new skills more difficult. It also makes it harder to revise and adapt your strategies in response to failures. Researchers have found one night of good sleep improves motor learning by 20% and accuracy by 39%.
Sleep debt degrades working memory. When you sleep at night, cerebrospinal fluid and slow-wave activity both flush toxic, memory-impairing proteins from the brain. Not getting enough sleep can lead to a 40% reduction in your ability to form new memories.
Sleep debt leads to fewer insights. By restructuring new memories, sleep helps you process your day and come up with new ideas and insights. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “let me sleep on it,” that’s why. Sleep is an excellent tool for creativity and problem-solving.
Sleep debt leads to more sick days. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night can make you 300% more likely to catch the common cold. And any manager who’s been around for a while knows that sick days cost you big in productivity. By making sure your team gets enough sleep, you can cut down on those costs by up to 28%.
Perhaps even worse than all of that, though, is the effect lack of sleep can have team collaboration and morale.
When you’re sleep deprived, you’re:
- More likely to use a negative tone of voice.
- Emotionally irrational
- Less empathetic
- Worse at reading emotions
- More likely to take risks
- More likely to behave unethically
All of these traits are terrible for teamwork, and they’re even worse traits to have when dealing with a prospect.
In case you’re still not convinced that sleep is a big deal, it’s actually possible to measure the productivity cost of sleep debt in dollars and cents. In an eight-month controlled trial, we ran with a Fortune 200 sales team. Sellers using Rise (our sleep app) increased key activities as their sleep improved. Outbound calls increased by 50%, while overall revenue increased by 14%.
When you assume that roughly 70% of your salesforce is underslept, it’s easy to see how fatigue-related productivity losses add up quickly.
And the bigger the sleep debt, the worse the impact on job performance. And yet, when organizations think of ways to make their teams more productive, more sleep and more rest is rarely the answer they come up with.
Why We Fail to Connect Sleep Debt and Productivity
So why don’t organizations prioritize sleep? Caffeine may be one reason since we can use it to counteract tiredness for a bit. But as most of us are probably aware, this ultimately boomerangs as caffeine negatively impacts that night’s sleep, starting you on a vicious cycle.
The more insidious reason leaders don’t often focus on sleep debt is that we tend to underestimate how underslept we are and how impaired our performance really is.
Significantly sleep-deprived individuals repeatedly rate themselves as only moderately sleepy. As one writer puts it:
“Lack of sleep … apparently tricks you into thinking you’re an office all-star. People who slept just six hours per night for two weeks functioned as poorly as if they’d gone without sleep for 48 hours, and yet they thought they were performing at the top of their game.”
How to Improve Your Team’s Productivity Through More Sleep
The good news is some organizations appear to be changing their tune. We, at Rise Science, are seeing an uptick in companies prioritizing sleep for improved productivity. Google and Goldman Sachs cover healthy sleep during employee training. Aetna actually pays its employees about a buck for every night they sleep seven to nine hours.
The even better news is that improving our sleep is largely in our control (unlike much of our current world). Managers and other organizational leaders can encourage their teams to harness the benefits of regular sleep.
Not sure where to start? Research shows that simply giving employees more control over their schedule, without even directly prioritizing sleep, has lasting benefits.
But there are also ways you can explicitly prioritize sleep for improved productivity. These fall into three main categories.
Awareness: In addition to knowing about (and minimizing) your sleep debt, it helps to understand your circadian rhythm. Together the two comprise the two process model of sleep regulation.
This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Your body’s natural circadian rhythm drives how your daily energy ebbs and flows over the course of the day. Empowering team members to control their sleep debt and giving them the ability to schedule their day according to natural peaks and dips in their energy will unlock new levels of focus.
Environment: To fall asleep and stay asleep, it’s recommended to make your bedroom like a cave. In other words, cool, dark, and quiet.
Encourage employees to set the thermostat to between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, ensure their rooms are dark enough that they don’t know when the sun comes up (we recommend a mask), and wear earplugs.
Behavior: Modifying behavior throughout the day can also help a team member fall asleep faster and stay asleep, leading to increased productivity the next day. In the morning, encourage them to get natural sunlight first thing and be active. During the day, stop drinking caffeine as early in the day as possible. Or stop drinking it altogether.
Be calculated with naps. It’s best to keep them to either 15-20 minutes or 90 minutes (a full sleep cycle), and avoid napping too late in the afternoon.
By evening, you should avoid late large meals, limit alcohol, and block blue light.
If all this sounds like a lot, consider the alternative — less focus, decreased memory and learning, irritability, and a cut to your bottom line.
Take Back Your Productivity
A lot of things are uncertain right now, but the need to run a business remains. If you’re looking for tools and tricks to stabilize your team’s productivity, why not start with the one that is a certainty?
Sleep is the most important investment you can make, and it’s one that you can start improving on immediately.
So get to sleep, and take back your productivity.