Wake up to the link between poor sleep and work performance

Poor sleep and work performance are linked, according to a recent study, backed up by a body of previous findings. Vicki Culpin looks at how sleep deprivation affects employees at all levels.

Traditionally, organisations that seek to enhance effectiveness have focused on developing leaders, managing talent and streamlining operations. However, research published in July 2016 by Hult International Business School suggests improving employees’ poor sleep may not only boost their health and wellbeing, but may give businesses a competitive advantage.

There is now a significant body of empirical knowledge highlighting the ways that poor sleep can affect individuals, including cognitive, social and health effects, yet very few focus on sleep issues within corporate life. It is this lack of research that led to the Hult study, seeking to understand how sleep loss affects the lives of working professionals, and whether or not these outcomes are related to levels of seniority.

A total of 1,060 workers completed a survey that asked a series of questions aimed at establishing their self-reported sleep quantity (how much) and quality (how good), along with how sleep loss affects three aspects of their working lives: performance; physical health; and social and emotional life. Individuals across all levels were represented, from CEOs to those without management responsibility.



Not enough sleep

The average length of reported sleep was six hours and 28 minutes. According to the American Academy of Sleep Science, between seven and nine hours of sleep per night is recommended for a healthy adult, therefore the participants in this study fall somewhat below this.

In addition, there was very little real difference in the amount of sleep reported by senior leaders (six hours and 17 minutes) compared with those less senior (six hours and 26 minutes for line managers and six hours and 33 minutes for those without line management responsibility). The results show that poor sleep quantity is not just an issue for senior leaders, it is a problem that spans the whole organisation.

Effect on work performance

The most frequently reported cognitive behaviours affected all rely heavily on sustained attention, which is known to be particularly susceptible to only a small reduction in sleep quality and quantity. Lack of attention and taking longer to complete tasks – two of the top five reported behaviours – suggest that productivity may be at risk and could be affected by sleep loss.

With research demonstrating a relationship between chronic sleep loss and health conditions including cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, the association between health and sleep is very important.

Feeling lethargic all of the time, having a slower reaction time, suffering from headaches and heartburn and a reduced libido were the top five reported effects. While these should be of particular concern to those whose role depends on physical reactions, such as drivers and surgeons, there will be an impact on the performance of all individuals in the workplace, not just within the domain of health and safety.

An overwhelming number of respondents found the interpersonal aspects of their role particularly challenging when suffering from sleep loss. In addition, poor motivation and feeling more stressed were also frequently reported. Feeling more irritable, having less energy to socialise, feeling more stressed, and poor levels of motivation combine to illustrate a compelling picture of why collaborative working may be particularly at risk from poor sleep.

Seniority and the impact of poor sleep

While there was little difference between the amount of sleep reported by senior individuals and junior colleagues, the senior group did report less of an effect across the three areas. Given this group were reporting to be getting the same amount of sleep, this lack of impact may be explained by the following factors:

  • Senior individuals may have more job control and autonomy and therefore able to manage their work day more effectively when sleep deprived.
  • Those in senior positions may have more developed coping strategies.
  • They may have a predisposition to be less affected.
  • Senior staff may be “politically savvy” enough to realise that they should not admit the detrimental effect.
  • They may lack self-awareness, and be unaware that poor sleep is having an impact.


The key facilitators of change are not just those in HR, but all individuals, with a particular emphasis on managers. The most important actions that can be taken are to raise awareness, bringing discussions around sleep into the open. Policies and practices also need to be changed to integrate sleep into the organisational resilience and wellbeing agenda.

The current research also highlights that organisations need to focus not just on the senior leaders, but also on junior colleagues, who are as likely to be suffering from poor sleep and the behavioural consequences of this in the workplace. The effects are not isolated to those in the most senior positions; the negative consequences of poor sleep need to be addressed across all levels of the organisation.

Vicki Culpin is professor of organisational behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School.

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