Why you need to talk to your team about sleep


Seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness (for example a long day at work) has been shown to result in changes in behaviour equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine — and if wakefulness becomes 24 hours (for example a long flight) then the individual may be performing as if they have drunk four glasses of wine.

Added on 29 April 2014 by Vicki Culpin

Some competencies such as decision -making creativity and innovation collectively known as ‘executive functions’ have been shown to be highly susceptible to even relatively minor sleep loss. Read this blog by Ashridge’s Dr Vicki Culpin to find out why sleep is crucial to top professional performance and why shut -eye is not just for wimps.

In our increasingly busy lives there never seem to be enough hours in the day. By the time we have factored in work family leisure and social activities there is precious little left over. Sleep – which is probably one of the most important factors affecting our general well-being – gets pushed right to the back of the queue and slotted into whatever gap is left at the end of the day.

We know from research however that both the quality and quantity of sleep we get has an enormous impact on our ability to perform well in our role. How often have you snapped at a colleague because you are impatient and irritable after a bad night’s sleep – or let something important slip because you have had less shut-eye than you really need?

Just one night without enough sleep (or the right kind of sleep) can seriously impair our ability to function well the next day – and contrary to common belief you often don’t ‘catch up’ on the sleep you lose. Now managers of course can’t dictate what time their team go to bed. But what you can do is help raise people’s awareness of the important role sleep has to play – and make sure that your workplace practices are not inadvertently leading people into bad habits.

Here are some of the key issues to consider:

Are you setting a good example?

People’s need for sleep varies enormously. So while you may be able to function well with less than the standard eight hours that won’t necessarily be the case for others in your team. Think carefully about what message you are sending to your team if you are firing off emails at two o’clock in the morning or pulling regular ‘all-nighters’. Going without sleep for 24 hours has been shown in some people to be the equivalent to driving over the limit after four large glasses of wine. Make sure you are not causing a ‘ripple’ effect and unintentionally encouraging unhelpful patterns of behaviour in your team.

Do working practices need to be reviewed?

Many organisations still have ‘macho’ cultures where long working hours are seen as a badge of honour. We equate presenteeism with productivity and assume that someone who goes home at five can’t possibly be doing as good a job as someone whose jacket is regularly on the chair well beyond normal working hours. The problem with this kind of culture is that it can create a vicious circle. People are tired and may perform more poorly so they end up having to stay later to redo below par work. Most people are pretty good at routine non-demanding tasks when they are sleep ‘deprived’ but executive function is seriously impaired when it comes to dealing with the ambiguous or unpredictable. If your people are tired they may be less able to think critically make quick decisions or think outside of the box.

Are you reaping the benefits of flexible working?

We tend to think of flexible working as a measure that helps people juggle work with family responsibilities and allows organisations to retain valuable employees. But it is also a valuable tool that can help you get the best out of individual members of your team. Do you know for example whether the people you manage are larks or owls? We know from research that roughly 20 per cent of people are natural larks and 20 per cent are natural owls. So shifting someone’s working hours to reflect their physiology – or helping them to schedule important work at the optimal time – can have a positive impact on performance. Helping people to work with their natural flow increases the likelihood of them becoming more creative and innovative and able to make a greater contribution to the team.

Are your people ‘in the know’ about sleep?

Sleep is one of those things we tend to just take for granted. But if your people are equipped with information about sleeping patterns the impact of poor sleep and helpful night-time routines they can make better decisions about how they behave and use their time. On a practical note are you aware that milk and bananas contain tryptophans which can help you get to sleep? Or that regular exercise often reduces the amount of sleep you need but improves its quality? Why not consider bringing an expert in to run a lunch –time session on sleep – or signpost your people to sources of advice and information? If they are armed with the right knowledge they can make small changes to behaviour that could have a big impact on performance.

Dr Vicki Culpin is Dean of Faculty and Director of Research at Ashridge Business School.