Sleep deprivation at work: the cost of sleep loss and what organisations can do

Sleep deprivation at work: the cost of sleep loss and what organisations can do

Victoria Dale is a highly accomplished diversity and inclusion consultant with extensive experience working across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Sleep deprivation at work - EW Group

The lines between work and personal life have undoubtedly been blurred by the hyper connected world in which we live and work. The increase in the number of people working from home due to Covid-19 has only blurred these lines further. Common signs of poor mental health brought on by increased workloads, job pressure and the anxieties of the pandemic are preventing even more of us from switching off and getting a good night’s sleep.

The cost of sleep loss for UK employers before the pandemic was estimated to be over £40 billion per year. And as insomnia now affects 1 in 4 people (compared to the pre-pandemic figure of 1 in 6), with women, young people and those facing financial difficulties being impacted most from sleep loss, costs related to sleep deprivation at work are certainly not diminishing.

Inclusive organisations are waking up to the link between the lack of sleep and work performance by making sleep a wellbeing priority. Find out how sleep deprivation affects work performance and what organisations can do to encourage healthy sleeping habits for all staff.

Sleep deprivation and work – why is it an important issue?

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts organisations’ mental health and wellbeing performance and its ability to drive business outcomes.

Sleep loss affects a range of areas crucial to workplace success, including:

When we speak about sleep deprivation at work, we’re not just talking about being a little sleepy on a Monday morning! These examples are some of the many reasons why organisations need to be encouraging positive sleep and wellbeing habits. Working from home has resulted in many of us attending more meetings and working on average 48 minutes longer per day. We’re also staring at the screen for more time throughout the day and are more inactive than when we were commuting into the office.

Lack of sleep and work performance – why does sleep affect our work?

Neuroscientists have explored the impact of sleep loss on the different parts of the brain for some time now. Whilst many areas of the brain function relatively well under little sleep, recent studies uncover why sleep loss takes such a big (and expensive) toll on the workplace. Sleep deprivation noticeably affects the part of our brain controlling many of the cognitive processes that we rely on in our learning, communication and work: known as the prefrontal cortex.

Leading sleep psychologists argue that “a leader’s ability to problem solve, deliver results and best support their teams will be impacted if they don’t get enough sleep”, having identified that desirable employee characteristics are disturbed by sleep loss. These impacted traits include:

  • Learning and memory
  • Organisational and planning skills
  • Emotional reactions, attention and concentration
  • Ability to recognise patterns, solve problems, make decisions and deliver results
  • Creativity
  • Communicating and reasoning. Almost half of senior leaders claimed in this study they are less able to hold strategic conversations when tired

In other words, the more your organisation encourages its leaders, managers and employees to switch off and sleep, the more likely it is to see the benefits through heightened wellbeing and performance.

Sleep deprivation at work – the impact on inclusive cultures

When seeking to progress your diversity, inclusion and wellbeing agenda, it’s vital that you look at how sleep deprivation at work can impact on your inclusive culture.

Most of us would agree that we’re less considerate and inclusive towards those around us when sleep deprived. Findings from research conducted by leading sleep psychologists and Hult International Business School only further support the business and wellbeing cases for encouraging your teams to switch off.

Out of the 1,000 employees from all managerial and professional levels surveyed, Hult’s Wake-up Call study found more behaviours impacting on inclusive cultures presented themselves in sleep deprived workers. Among these findings, 84% of respondents said that “poor sleep makes them more irritable”, suggesting sleep loss makes us more likely to snap and potentially make micro-aggressions.  56% of respondents said that sleep deprivation makes it harder for them to have difficult conversations with colleagues. And over half of respondents reported that a poor night’s sleep worsens their stress, anxiety and frustration, whilst increasing the likelihood of them to feel withdrawn or lack optimism.

When senior managers were surveyed, Hult discovered that almost half (46%) found it more difficult to be mindful of their impact on others whilst leading on little sleep. Fair to say then that sleep gets in the way of truly inclusive leadership, surely?

How to deal with sleep deprivation at work

Prioritising our physical and mental health, learning to switch off from our electronic devices and improving our quality of sleep benefits everyone in terms of reducing sickness absence and boosting productivity and employee wellbeing.

Encouragingly, employers and organisations are becoming more aware of the impact lack of sleep has on employee wellbeing, mental health and productivity, with some taking measures to address this.

As an employer, you can:

  • Host a wellbeing lunch and learn session to equip your team with healthy and productive work practices or run an inclusive cultures training to demonstrate positive and inclusive workplace behaviours expected amongst your team
  • Encourage regular check-ins and promote scheduling of regular breaks and exercise
  • Introduce an organisation-wide ‘no work email’ policy after normal working hours – 83% of leaders say that their company does not educate them enough about the importance of switching off and sleeping

As individuals, we can:

  • Adopt good habits for working from home to boost our productivity, energy and motivation
  • Reduce the amount of time we spend checking social media by introducing a cut off time usually an hour before bed. Blue light from tablets/devices is shown to stimulate the brain and keep us awake for longer
  • Remember the value of exercise and balanced diets, which boost how we feel throughout the day and how well we sleep at night. Studies show that sleep loss can affect our diet as it makes us more likely to grab a high carb snack or meal whilst exercising less
  • Apply the 20-20-20 rule when sitting at your desk. For every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, take a 20 second break to look at something 20 feet. This relaxes the eye muscles for 20 seconds and gives your brain a much-needed break from looking at the screen

Switching off and sleeping are vital components of your team’s wellbeing and a measure of how inclusive your organisation’s culture is. Make sleep a priority and see the returns through boosted employee wellbeing, job satisfaction and work performance. Talk with us about adopting a workplace sleep policy or training your team about the importance of inclusive work practices.

Making sleep and wellbeing a priority?

Victoria Dale is a Diversity and Organisational Development Consultant at EW Group. She is a highly accomplished diversity and inclusion consultant with extensive experience working across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Victoria's enthusiasm, passion and vast knowledge of diversity and inclusion shines through her training and facilitation. She is always keen to inspire, engage and encourage everyone's participation and help deliver real results.

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