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Management’s Role in Better Sleep

It’s been several years since Harvard School of Medicine sleep medicine professor Charles A. Czeisler wrote his Harvard Business Review article titled, “Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer,” but there are excerpts from that article that still manage to attract a lot of interest, particularly when he said, “We would never say, “This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!”

What Czeisler was referring to was research that indicates that going for a full 24-hour cycle without getting sleep, or (what is more likely) going several days in a row with only four or five hours of sleep, puts you in the exact same physical state of impairment as if you had been drinking; it produces the equivalent performance as if you had a blood alcohol concentration of .1%, the level at which many states say that you are too intoxicated to drive. Yet many workers are praised for their work ethic in terms of the fact that they never sleep. This is a compliment that may have an unintentionally negative impact, as workers who are operating on little sleep are not doing their companies any good.

Missing out on sleep does not make you more productive. In fact, there is ample evidence that it does just the opposite, diminishing the power of memory, the ability to learn, and the level of creativity of the sleep deprived subject. Sleep provides our brains with the opportunity to clean house and organize, tucking away valuable information for future use and discarding what we don’t need. Getting the sleep that we need is not a sign of laziness – it is a hallmark of effectiveness.

People who sacrifice sleep lose more than their ability to learn. Sleeplessness leaves us at risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular problems, obesity and depression. People who need sleep tend to be cranky and miserable, making them unpleasant to be around. They also tend to waste a lot of time due to the fact that they are tired and lack focus. When you consider the fact that nearly half of the people in the world report having some kind of sleep deficit, the thought of the productivity that we are losing and the risk that we are running is mind boggling.

Professor Czeisler’s take on the global epidemic of sleep deprivation is that sleep needs to become a priority for corporations and countries alike. Making sleep a policy issue by educating people about its impact on health and safety, providing access to testing for sleep disorders and learning how to correct sleep hygiene issues in order to promote the best sleep environment and potential can only help. He also says that companies should closely examine the demands that they make on their employees to make sure that they aren’t sending the wrong message and encouraging them to work long hours. Instead he wants them to limit the time that people spend on work.

There is plenty of research to back up this idea. Orfeo Buxton is a sleep researcher at Harvard, and he has been able to show a relationship between management encouraging a positive work life balance and employees who engage in good sleep habits and prioritize getting enough rest. His point is that companies can exert positive pressure on their staff to get enough sleep, and that the opposite is also true – that if management puts pressure on staff to work extra hours, they are more likely to have poor sleep habits. If we can compliment employees who get enough sleep and stop praising the workaholic who barely gets any shut eye, we may actually improve overall productivity and decrease absenteeism and days taken off for illness.

Buxton is quoted as saying, “We have evidence of multiple pathways by which the workplace impacts health and wellness. Management can either be a part of the problem, or be a part of long-term solutions. We need evidence-based solutions that both improve worker health and benefit employers.”

The number one most important thing that people can do to limit stress and improve their productivity is to get enough sleep. No amount of mindfulness training, yoga, exercise or positive thinking will do more than the consistent habit of getting enough sleep, and companies that encourage their employees to pursue this, even at the cost of minimizing the emphasis on staying late or getting in early, are likely to reap very real benefits in terms of employee morale, creativity, and productivity. Sleep is also the most economical fix for what ails employees, and encouraging people to choose to prioritize it is one of the least expensive ways available for a company to offer a benefit that has real, tangible results.

If you are a manager whose employees are prone to burning the midnight oil, there are a number of recommendations that you can make that may seem counterproductive to you but which will actually reap great benefits in the long run. Here are four things you can share with your staff to help them get a better night’s sleep and let them know that it is important to you that they do so.

  • Get at least half an hour of cardio in every day. There is a substantial amount of research that shows that people who exercise for at least twenty minutes a day get better sleep than those who don’t make time for it. Exercise can also serve as a great stress reliever. Morning or afternoon workouts are best because exercising too close to bedtime can stimulate you and keep you awake.
  • Try not to let yourself doze after dinner. If you take a nap after you eat you are likely to wreak havoc with your scheduled sleep time. Sit up straight or walk around if you feel like your eyes are closing.
  • Set an alarm to tell yourself when it’s time to go to bed. It’s a subtle way of making sure that you’re making sleep a priority.
  • Make sure your room is as dark and quiet as possible.


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