It’s a vicious cycle: Especially in competitive, ambitious workplaces, staff are constantly under pressure to work ever harder—the assumption being, that this is the only path to greater success. Yet the irony is that as people get increasingly tired, their productivity drops—meaning they have to work even harder and longer to get ahead. And don’t bother working more than 55 hours in a week: a 2014 study found that after 50 hours of work, productivity drops sharply. And people who worked 70 hours achieved virtually nothing more than those who worked 55 hours.
The problem is compounded by the fact an unrelenting pace at work and chronic exhaustion are major contributors to sleep problems—and poor sleep, in turn, leads to underperformance, costly errors, and conflicts with coworkers.
The importance of staying sharp
Considering all the ways in which sleep affects productivity, the fable of the two woodcutters has probably never been more timely. In fact, according to one social media survey, it’s remarkably close to the truth: the most productive 10% of employees surveyed worked for 52 minutes at a time, followed by a break of 17 minutes.
Sleep deprivation is estimated to cost American companies more than $63 billion annually in lost productivity, and research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine narrows this down further to $3,156 per insomniac employee. So it could be said that getting plenty of rest is the simplest single way of ensuring a competitive edge.
• Sleep is crucial for creativity. To cope with new challenges in the workplace, we need to find innovative solutions for complex problems. “In the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively,” says Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett.
• Learning is consolidated while we sleep. Most industries in the 21st century require workers to continually acquire new skills, while also learning to adapt to new technologies and new challenges as they arise. Research has shown that when we sleep, the things we have learned during our waking hours are assimilated in our minds. In one study, the electrical activity in the brains of rats was monitored while they slept. The patterns detected were so similar to those picked up when the rats were negotiating a maze while awake, researchers deduced that the rats were “practicing” the correct path through the maze in their dreams.
• Having plenty of sleep promotes healthy teamwork. Being able to interact successfully and productively with our coworkers is a crucial part of not only functioning but thriving in the workplace. The findings of a survey by Hult International Business School indicated that interpersonal relationships deteriorated as a result of the irritability, lack of focus, and impaired empathy of people who were suffering from sleep deprivation.
• Major errors and accidents have been attributed to inadequate sleep. Do you know what life-threatening and sometimes fatal medical errors have in common with nuclear disasters including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl—and even the Exxon Valdez oil spill? It’s lack of sleep. Newly qualified doctors are often put to work for stretches of 24-36 hours, during which they have little or no sleep; in one study, it was estimated that up to 36% of medical errors in a hospital could be prevented if rotations were limited to a maximum of 16 hours in duration.
• Restful sleep is crucial for mental clarity and good memory. At work, we often need to think on our feet and react quickly: Being able to re-focus after a distraction is a crucial aspect of getting through your schedule efficiently and productively. The ability to recall key information needed to complete your tasks is equally relevant, reducing the amount of time you spend double-checking and reminding yourself of things you should “just know.” Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, “Poor sleep has an adverse impact on thinking,” and there is plenty of published research backing up his assertion.
Taking the initiative
With the increasing awareness of how vital sleep is to productivity—not to mention safety—many industries are actively implementing safeguards to ensure workers receive the rest they need. In the US, there are regulations limiting the maximum number of hours that operators of commercial motor vehicles such as trucks and buses are allowed to spend behind the wheel. The first Hours of Service (HOS) rules were drafted in 1937, and they have undergone many revisions as the detrimental effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation have become increasingly evident.
Similarly, the issue of pilot fatigue has been examined in scientific studies and scholarly articles alike. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made considerable efforts to limit the number of consecutive hours that pilots spend in command of an aircraft, as well as the maximum number of flying hours they undertake in any 7-day period.
Rest: A recipe for success?
The subject of self-care, especially as it applies to adequate rest, is becoming a hot topic in the corporate world. Many innovative start-ups and emerging companies seem to be making remarkable progress and rising to meteoric success against a backdrop of well-established corporations that are struggling to keep up. Does this new trend of valuing the happiness and well-being of workers in an organization have a key role to play? Is the traditional workplace culture of struggling through long hours rather than being smart about how we work, finally starting to go out of vogue? Are companies starting to re-evaluate their approach towards creating an effective workforce?
Perhaps it’s high time more of us followed these examples and made it a higher priority to sharpen that proverbial ax!