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Sleepless in senior leadership: The workplace effects of sleep deprivation

4 min read


It’s a tempting thought: The more we work, the more productive we are. For those in senior leadership, it can be irresistible. The organization needs its senior leaders to lead. The company will not stay afloat without their productivity.

There are only so many hours in a week, and any time spent working cannot be spent somewhere else. What is easiest to replace to get that extra time? Sleep. However, recent research offers a counterpoint to this common temptation: Sacrificing sleep on the altar of productivity does not only make you tired, it could also make you a bad leader.

In two separate studies (one field study of nurses, one laboratory study of students), Michael Christian and Aleksander Ellis revealed that when people suffered from sleep deprivation, they experienced a decrease in productivity, lost of self-control and began to feel more hostile. In other words, lack of sleep makes people cranky. In their field study, this crankiness led people to engage in workplace deviance, such as falsifying receipts for reimbursement, working slower to earn more overtime, using drugs and alcohol on the job and criticizing or verbally degrading co-workers.

Inside the laboratory, the results were replicated with an intriguing twist: The researchers provided students with an incentive to steal answers to a test they took. Sleep-deprived students were more likely to steal the answers and cheat on the test.

The explanation the authors propose is that sleep deprivation does not affect the brain equally. When individuals are deprived of sleep, they experience decreased brain function primarily in the prefrontal cortex, which controls many “executive” and “supervisory” functions, including the ability to control emotion and govern behaviors. Lack of sleep decreases individuals’ self-regulation, which helps them determine how best to act around others. Within the field study, lack of control over emotions and lack of behavioral inhibition triggered nurses (and shift leaders) to engage in behavior that would otherwise be obviously inappropriate. These functions — emotional control, behavioral inhibition and self-regulation — are skills needed for effective, emotionally intelligent leadership.

Organizations and leaders can help avoid these negatives by encouraging individuals to take time for rest, even if work still needs to be done. Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, cites research that argues that 95% of humans require seven or eight hours of sleep per night. The remaining 5% is distributed on either side of the 95%, implying that 97.5% of humans require at least seven hours of sleep. Some specific actions for reducing crankiness-induced workplace deviance include:

  1. Sleep-awareness programs. These provide leaders and employees with information on the importance of sleep and tactics for monitoring their own sleep habits. If individuals can be more aware of their sleep, they can recognize when their inhibition is low and potential deviance is high. Search engine giant Google conducted just such a program in 2006, providing sleep awareness programs to 3,000 employees and training more than 50 facilitators worldwide.
  2. Re-designing jobs to limit sleep deprivation. Sometimes simply rescheduling work shifts would increase rest, but in other industries, acceptable limits to when individuals can work offsite would also need to be set. In 2011, Volkswagen established a policy of deactivating mobile e-mail outside of work hours to allow employees to have downtime when not at work.
  3. Changing the organizational culture. Many industries and organizations promote internal competition and workaholism. While this may appear to drive productivity, more often it can drive deviance. Consider changing the organization’s culture to encourage a more holistic, sustainable approach to work life. Since 2007, Ernest & Young has been engaged in a program of culture change to reduce turnover by decreasing the pressure toward workaholism during the busy tax season.

It is tempting to believe that more hours at work directly influence more output. However, recent research is revealing that this may not be the case. In fact, the real link may be between more hours at work and more workplace deviance. This relationship is found across all levels, from employees to those in senior leadership positions. Among the sleepless in senior leadership, many have convinced themselves that the organization needs them to work more. What the organization really needs is not leaders who work more; it needs well-rested leaders who lead better.

David Burkus is a professor of management at Oral Roberts University and editor of LDRLB, an online think tank that offers insights from research on leadership, innovation and strategy.