The Truth About How Sleep Deprivation Affects Work Performance

May 22, 2019

Alarm clock on a nightstand
Linsey Knerl

Lack of productivity can be costly to a company, and many HR professionals and leaders devote their careers to finding that perfect balance between enjoying workplace culture and getting the work done. In addition to tech tools, scheduling devices, smart workstations and effective communication styles, there may be one more opportunity you haven't considered: sleep.

One of the most overlooked aspects of employee performance is fatigue at work. It's important to understand how sleep deprivation affects work performance. If you're hoping to boost employee productivity, could you be doing more to combat sleeplessness among your teams?

The Financial Value of Sleep

How valuable is sleep? Very. Tired employees could be hurting the profitability of your business, both in terms of output and in liability. Many of the processes and procedures we rely on need to be executed with peak proficiency; there's even the risk of harm to a worker – and others – if drowsiness interferes with comprehension or task completion. In fact, studies compare a lack of sleep to the dangers of alcohol impairment. Someone who has been awake for 21 hours will "perform at a level of impairment roughly the same as a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%."

For examples of how sleep deprivation affects work performance, consider these stats from a recent RAND Corporation study:

  • The United States alone sustains economic losses of up to $411 billion a year due to sleep deprivation.
  • The productivity loss can be measured as 1.23 million working days per year.
  • To further complicate matters, the study reports workers who sleep, on average, less than six hours a night have a "ten percent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours." Even those who sleep between six and seven hours have a slightly higher mortality risk (4 percent) than those who get a healthy amount of sleep.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declaring that lack of sleep is a "public health problem" – with more than one-third of U.S. adults not regularly sleeping enough, is it time to make this epidemic a workplace concern?

What You Can Do

How can HR managers and leaders help create a culture of better rest? While there are boundaries to how far you should go with involving yourself in the sleep habits of your teams, a simple conversation may help. Ask about difficulties that may be keeping your employees from a restful evening. Do they struggle with finding the time? Are there health issues at play? What can you do as an employer to support them with their sleep goals?

Often, the workplace takes a hands-off approach toward how workers go about their daily lives, but this is an area where you have a vested interest. Communicate often about any employer-benefit perks that may be helpful to struggling sleepers; this may be a health insurance plan coverage, membership to the local gym or yoga class or even sleep accessories that may fall under covered medical devices. Whether your workers simply need to know that it's OK to take a nap in the company nap pod, or they need help obtaining a CPAP machine from their doctor, your role in improving sleep may be more prominent than you first realize.

It's also smart to take moments to educate your workers on the factors that can interfere with restful sleep and do more to make an environment that works in tandem with a human's natural circadian rhythm. According to the RAND study, employers can "design and build brighter workspaces; combat workplace psychosocial risks, and discourage the extended use of electronic devices." Fatigue at work doesn't have to be the new norm. Supporting your workers — and their need for rest — can be beneficial to both their personal and professional aspirations.

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