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The impact of sleep on human functioning has interested psychological, biological and physiological researchers for centuries. The average amount of sleep required for an adult to support normal biological and psychological functioning is between 7 and 8.5 hours, but often, as many will know, it is difficult to ensure we get the right amount. Since the late 19th Century, academics have sought to understand how sleep loss can impact on human physiology and behaviour – an interest which has only continued to grow as we have become more aware of the problem.
While 19th Century researchers conducted investigations which connected extreme sleep deprivation to disturbing consequences (hallucinations in one case study by Patrick and Gilbert, 1896), 20th Century scientists concentrated on developing methodologies that would allow us to measure how even smaller lapses in sleep can affect the brain. Current research has led us even closer to understanding how minor fluctuations in sleep put pressure on the abilities we rely on day to day.
Contemporary life-styles, working long hours, increasing use of mobile technology, shift work, and the need to function across different time zones have all been implicated in causing sleep deprivation (e.g. Haimov and Arendt, 1999). All common aspects of modern professional living, the chances are that most workers will be trying to balance a good night’s sleep with at least one of these factors.
With this in mind, how is sleep affecting your productivity, and that of your colleagues? Sleep has been shown to affect a wide variety of cognitive tasks, such as short-term memory, working memory, processing speed and tasks requiring focus: all necessary for functioning successfully in the vast majority of roles. Fragmented sleep and limited hours have consequences similar to those of severe sleep deprivation, impacting on cognitive functions, attention span, and operant memory, or ability to predict consequences based on experience. The impact of only minor sleep deprivation levels on a team of three people is equivalent to losing one full-time worker, and when we scale this up for larger organisations could provide some frightening statistics.
So what should you look for? Clinical sleep deprivation is defined by the following symptoms:
- Longer reaction times
- Increased levels of distraction
- Difficulties in focusing
- Forgetting known facts
- Trouble memorising new information
- Making mistakes and omissions.
Additionally, there are emotional and psychological symptoms that have been identified. If you are worried about sleep deprivation, the most obvious of these signs to look for include signs of higher levels of stress, tiredness, drowsiness, and increased irritability. Less easily observable but equally important from an organisational point of view, are decreasing personal effectiveness and lower levels of motivation. Sleep deprivation could be putting both relationships between co-workers and the quality of your end product at risk.
Difficulty learning and memorising facts has also been associated with sleep loss, well documented by Robert Stickgold and Matthew P. Walker in their 2007 research on the topic. Even reasoning ability has been recognised as being impaired by sleep deprivation, slowing down not only on the day following sleep loss, but the subsequent day too.
The impact on reasoning is particularly interesting, as the type of reasoning seems to be influential. Although rule-based, convergent reasoning (finding a single, correct answer to a problem), decision-making and planning seem to be relatively unaffected by sleep loss, the more creative and innovative aspects of thinking appear to be more affected. This could be very damaging for anyone in a managerial position, as these are skills managers are more often expected to utilise.
New research on sleep is currently being conducted by myself and Ashridge Business School Research Director Dr Vicki Culpin. Due to be published this spring, the research will examine the sleeping habits of over 1000 people, ranging from junior managers to C-Suite professionals. We are also seeking Directors to participate in the next stage of our research. If you are interested in this opportunity, please contact [email protected]
Haimov I., Arendt, J. (1999).The prevention and treatment of jet lag, Sleep Medical Review. 3, 229-40.
Patrick, G., Gilbert, J. (1896). Studies from the psychological laboratory of the University of Iowa: On the effects of loss of sleep. Psychological Review, 3, 469 – 483.
Stickgold, R. Walker, M.P. (2005). Memory consolidation and reconsolidation: What is the role of sleep? Trends in Neuroscience. 28,8,408-415.