To Sleep or Not to Sleep: That is the Question

IESE picWhen was the last time you encountered a colleague, a student or any other acquaintance of yours, who would answer the common ‘how are you?’ question with a sincere ‘I am doing great’, while looking rested and full of energy? Isn’t it getting more common to hear about ‘being too busy’, ‘a bit tired’ and ‘looking forward for a vacation’, which better reflects the tired look of the person in front of you? What about yourself? Are sleepiness and tiredness alien concepts to you, or rather becoming the new normal? Have you ever felt like a ‘walking zombie’?

According to James Maas, former psychology professor at Cornell University, the U.S is becoming a nation of walking zombies. The same topic of sleep deprivation is highlighted by University of Leeds research, which found that a third of Britons suffered from low levels of sleep. McKinsey professionals also tapped into this issue lately, reporting on several studies about the effects of sleep deprivation. Indeed, there is plenty of scientific evidence that sleep deprivation impairs our ability to focus attention selectively, inhibits creativity and problem solving processes, and decreases the control over our automatic mental biases and impulsive emotional reactions. In fact, research finds that a person with a moderate sleep deprivation is performing equally to a person, who has had some alcoholic drinks.

I would argue that although sleep deprivation is an important concern for human performance overall, be it in education, work or sport domains, the world of global business should be especially attentive to these notions.

Global businesses function in environments characterized by different time zones, constant information exchange and lots of travel. In a vibrant global environment employees are often expected to be available 24/7, participate in early morning or late night conference calls, and travel for their business meetings usually outside of their working hours. For example, I discussed the possible disruption of sleeping routines and general overload of work in the case of frequent business travel in one of my earlier blog posts.

Given that decreased performance levels or decreased work quality naturally impact business results (e.g. through sick leave, burnout, or turnover), it seems sensible to deal with the problem. Yet, while companies enthusiastically teach their employees about healthy nutrition, support exercising and mindfulness practices in the workplace, very few touch upon the topic of sleep. Indeed, it does seem somewhat of a taboo topic, maybe because we are used to relating sleeping to laziness. On the other hand, pretty much every list of the top ‘7 (8, 9… etc.) rules of a highly successful person’ , as found on the Internet, includes the rule of an early wake-up. After all, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer only gets about four hours of sleep! 🙂

As the McKinsey professionals put it, business people (compared to musicians, athletes and politicians) have always lagged behind in acknowledging the issue and acting on it. Yet, it might be exactly the right time to change. Apart from training programs on sleeping tips, companies have a great potential for managing the issues within company policies and practices. In terms of global businesses, we can think about encouraging or imposing work-time limits, e-mail and phone call blackout times, mandatory vacation days, flexible travel opportunities, and teleconferencing that is mindful of local times. Finally, there is smart technology for sleep management and sleep/nap pods, which companies could consider supplying to their employees. Google has nap pods in the workplace, however it is still considered to be ‘outrageous workplace luxury’.

3 thoughts on “To Sleep or Not to Sleep: That is the Question

  1. Yes, I guess imposing work-time limits, and e-mail and phone call blackout times are effective measures. On the other hand, I think the Google’s nap pods in the workplace is workplace ‘luxury’!
    Thank you for sharing your post.

  2. There is no doubt that the pressure we put on ourselves to work more
    hours has an impact on how many hours we dedicate to sleep.
    But it will be very difficult to change the notion that somebody
    who doesn’t spend enough hours sleeping works more hours and more effectively
    than someone who does.

  3. This is something that will become increasingly prominent in workplace theory and optimization. I think eventually the large corporations will start to adopt sleep policies, and then everyone else will follow.Might take a while though…

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