1: Initial reports blamed the inebriated captain of the Exxon Valdez for running the oil tanker aground on the Bligh Reef in Alaska on March 24, 1989.
“The coastal ecosystem has never recovered,” Matthew Walker recounts in Why We Sleep. The breached hull spewed as much as 40 million gallons of crude oil into the surrounding shoreline killing more than 500,000 seabirds, 5,000 otters, 300 seals, over 200 bald eagles, and 20 orca whales.
“Later, it was revealed that the sober captain had turned over command to a qualified mate on deck,” Matthew notes.
The real issue? The mate had “slept only six out of the previous forty-eight hours, causing him to make the cataclysmic navigational error,” Matthew writes.
“Tragically, this same neglect has resulted in some of the worst global catastrophes punctuating the human historical record,” he observes. “Consider the infamous reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, 1986. The radiation from the disaster was one hundred times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped in World War II. . . Thousands died from the long-term effects of radiation in the protracted decades following the event, and tens of thousands more suffered a lifetime of debilitating medical and developmental ill health.”
Once again, a lack of sleep is the suspected cause, writes Matthew: “There is speculation the operators were sleep-deprived, working an exhaustive shift, occurring, without coincidence, at one a.m.”
2: The trends regarding the reduction in the amount of sleep are alarming. In 1942, 8 percent of the US population slept six hours or less a night. Today, nearly 25 percent of American adults get six hours of sleep or less.
“The lens of a 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation pulls this sleep deficiency into sharp focus. Almost 35 percent of the US adult population fail to obtain the CDC-recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep a night,” Matthew writes.
The World Health Organization now designates the lack of societal sleep as a global health epidemic.
“Beyond any single individual, why should society care?” Matthew asks. “Would altering sleep attitudes and increasing sleep amounts make any difference to our collective lives as a human race, to our professions and corporations, to commercial productivity, to salaries, the education of our children, or even our moral nature?”
The short answer? Yes.
Whether we “are a business leader or employee, the director of a hospital, a practicing doctor or nurse, a government official or military person, a public-policy maker or community health worker, anyone who expects to receive any form of medical care at any moment in their life, or a parent, the answer is very much ‘yes,’ for more reasons than you may imagine.”
Today, we are examining the impact of a lack of sleep in the workplace.
“Sleep deprivation degrades many of the key faculties required for most forms of employment,” Matthew writes. “Why, then, do we overvalue employees that undervalue sleep? We glorify the high-powered executive on email until 1:00 a.m., and then in the office by 5:45 a.m.; we laud the airport “warrior” who has traveled through five different time zones on seven flights over the past eight days. There remains a contrived, yet fortified, arrogance in many business cultures focused on the uselessness of sleep.”
3: Why has this mentality persisted? Because many business leaders incorrectly believe time-on-task equals task completion and productivity.
“Even in the industrial era of rote factory work, this was untrue,” Matthew points out. “It is a misguided fallacy, and an expensive one, too.”
The research shows shorter sleep amounts predict lower work effectiveness and reduced speed on basic tasks. “Sleepy employees are unproductive employees,” he writes.
But the impact of lack of sleep impacts other areas as well. “Sleep-deprived individuals generate fewer and less accurate solutions to work-relevant problems,” Matthew writes.
Creativity is the driver of business innovation. “Give participants the ability to choose between work tasks of varying effort, from easy (e.g., listening to voicemails) to difficult (e.g., helping design a complex project that requires thoughtful problem solving and creative planning), and you find that those individuals who obtained less sleep in the preceding days are the same people who consistently select less challenging problems,” he notes. “They opt for the easy way out, generating fewer creative solutions in the process.”
What happens when we take the same individuals and re-run the experiment only after they have had a full night’s sleep? The results flip. “A lack of sleep, then, is indeed a causal factor,” Matthew observes.
Sleep-deprived workers are also more apt to lack the necessary self-control to rein in emotional reactions. Research shows participants who lack sufficient sleep are “more emotionally volatile and rash in their choices and decision-making,” Matthew notes.
They also report liking their jobs less—”perhaps unsurprising considering the mood-depressing influence of sleep deficiency,” Matthew states.
According to a study by the RAND Corporation on the economic cost of insufficient sleep, workers who sleep fewer than seven hours a night on average cause the US $411 billion a year due to the impact on “creativity, intelligence, motivation, effort, efficiency, effectiveness when working in groups, as well as emotional stability, sociability, and honesty,” writes Matthew. “All of these are systematically dismantled by insufficient sleep.”
Also alarming? Many of these individuals do not report wanting or needing less sleep.
“Participants in the above studies do not perceive themselves as applying less effort to the work challenge, or being less effective, when they were sleep-deprived, despite both being true,” writes Matthew. “They seemed unaware of their poorer work effort and performance—a theme of subjective misperception of ability when sleep-deprived.”
It’s a vicious cycle: Not getting enough sleep causes reduced workplace effectiveness, requiring team members to work longer hours. Which, in turn, reduces sleep further.
“People often tell me that they do not have enough time to sleep because they have so much work to do,” Matthew observes. “Without wanting to be combative in any way whatsoever, I respond by informing them that perhaps one reason they still have so much to do at the end of the day is perhaps because they do not get enough sleep at night.”
One final negative result of not getting enough sleep: Worker dishonesty.
“Under-slept employees are not only less productive, less motivated, less creative, less happy, and less effective, but they may be more unethical,” Matthew notes. “Studies in the workplace have found that employees who sleep six hours or less are significantly more deviant and more likely to lie the following day than those who sleep six hours or more.
“Seminal work by Dr. Christopher Barns, a researcher in the Foster School of Business at Washington University, has found that the less an individual sleeps, the more likely they are to create fake receipts and reimbursement claims,” writes Matthew. Christopher “also discovered that under-slept employees are more likely to blame other people in the workplace for their own mistakes, and even try to take credit for other people’s successful work: hardly a recipe for team building and a harmonious business environment.”
Reflection: Am I getting enough sleep? If not, what am I going to do about it?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.