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The Social and Behavioral Costs of Sleeplessness to the Workplace

In recent years, there's been an increasing scientific interest in the effects of sleep on workplace relationships and behaviors. While there is much still to learn, we're developing a deeper understanding than ever before about how poor sleep can interfere with and undermine individual and group behavior in the workplace:
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Businessman sleeping on laptop at desk in office
Businessman sleeping on laptop at desk in office

Sleep is an essential daily resource -- essential to life and basic functioning, essential to health, essential to productivity and performance, to the successful accomplishment of all we seek to achieve in our professional and personal lives. For years, we've collectively undertaken a public conversation about "work-life" balance (even as the demands of the workplace and time spent working have escalated for most employees). These discussions are tremendously important -- but they are also usually incomplete in at least one critical way: they generally don't consider or account for sleep.

In a 24-hour day, many people spend as much or more time sleeping than either engaged with work or with family -- at least it should be that way, given that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. But when we talk about time management and the balance of demands between work and family, sleep rarely makes an appearance in the discussion. A 2014 study examines this issue in depth, highlighting the pitfalls and hazards of work-life theories and strategies that fail to factor sleep. The study also finds that people with both work and family demands routinely borrow from their sleep time to meet those demands -- and the higher the demands from work and family are, the more likely that sleep will suffer.

One consequence of the constant drawing away from sleep to meet the needs of daily life is the undercutting of social skills and relationships. This damage can affect both the quality of individual personal and professional relationships, and can also undermine the trust, teamwork, and cooperation that exist among groups and teams at work -- and family units at home. It's a dismaying irony that in striving to meet work and family demands by borrowing from sleep, people risk weakening the very relationships and connections that are the underlying heart of those demands.

While acknowledging that compromised, insufficient sleep can hurt family and personal relationships, and that stress and strain from personal conflict can have significant bearing on job performance, for the remainder of this particular discussion I will focus on the ways poor sleep negatively impacts workplace relationships and social behavior. In recent years, there's been an increasing scientific interest in the effects of sleep on workplace relationships and behaviors. While there is much still to learn, we're developing a deeper understanding than ever before about how poor sleep can interfere with and undermine individual and group behavior in the workplace:

Emotional reactivity. Lack of sleep increases emotional reactivity, making people short-tempered, quick to judge, and more emotionally volatile. Sleeplessness also makes people less adept at managing their emotions while working. One study examined medical residents and found sleep loss had a direct, negative impact on their ability to manage their emotions. Low on sleep, residents reacted with greater negativity to disruptions during their workdays. They also displayed less positive reactions to events that helped them meet work-related goals.

Empathy. Sleeplessness interferes with our own ability to process emotional information, as well as our ability to accurately gauge the emotions of others. Lacking sleep, we're less attuned to how others are feeling, and much more prone to missing signals we'd otherwise take in--important information that fuels constructive relationships. Sleep also dampens our ability to empathize -- to walk in another person's shoes, to imagine others' feelings and give full consideration to their points of view. In the workplace, lack of these abilities -- key components of emotional intelligence -- interfere with teamwork, cooperation, and trust. These sleep-driven limitations on empathy and emotional sensitivity also create more conflict--not only at work, but also in employees' personal relationships.

Self-perception. It's not only the feelings of others we lose our ability to identify and understand when we run short on sleep. Our own perceptions of self and our ability to function are also compromised by sleep loss. Sleep deprived, people tend to be very poor judges of the degree to which fatigue affects them and their performance. Lacking sleep, with judgment impaired, people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and make risky decisions.

Teamwork. A growing body of research looks specifically at how sleep loss affects team performance. Studies have found that sleep deprivation hurts team decision-making, decision time, accuracy and problem solving. Some research has identified a group effect, where employees working in teams suffer less sleep-related performance deterioration than individuals working separately. While this may be the case in some circumstances, its increasing clear that teamwork suffers when employees aren't getting enough sleep.

Organizations don't just lose the positive, pro-social behaviors and attitudes when sleep runs short in a workforce -- poor sleep also makes truly undesirable behaviors more likely. One striking example? Sleep loss generates a rise in unethical behavior. This fascinating research -- and related discussion--is led by Christopher M. Barnes, PhD, an associate professor of management at University of Washington's Foster School of Business. Dr. Barnes is a leader in studying sleep issues in the workplace and sleep's effects on individual and organizational behavior. (Several of his studies are cited here in this article and throughout this series.) Dr. Barnes and his colleagues studied the impact of sleep on ethical behavior in the workplace in a series of studies. The found sleep deprivation -- and perceptions of poor sleep quality--was strongly associated with a greater incidence of cheating in the workplace. These high levels of unethical behavior connected to lack of sleep resulted from diminished self-control, researchers concluded. And it didn't take a lot of lost sleep to trigger a spike in cheating: in one of the studies, the gap between employees who cheated and those who did not was only 22 minutes of lost sleep.

Barnes' research aligns with other studies that show poor sleep is linked to deviant behavior in the workplace--behavior that ranges from avoiding work and leaving early or arriving late, to rudeness, to theft, vandalism and violence. Again, the difference between sleep amounts for deviant and non-deviant behavior is strikingly narrow -- researchers found that people who slept fewer than 6 hours nightly were more likely to demonstrate deviant and unethical behavior the next day, compared to people who slept more than 6 hours. Scientists also attributed these behaviors to a sleep-driven loss of self-control, linked to the cognitive functions of the pre-frontal cortex.

There are two other factors that combine and interact with sleep (and with each other) in ways that have significant implications for the workplace: stress and job satisfaction. Stress and sleep have a complex, bi-directional relationship -- each has significant power to influence the other. Stress and worry interfere with sleep. Short on sleep, people are more vulnerable to stress, and less able to manage it when it appears. Stress and anxiety are widespread in the workplace today: more than half of employees say stress interferes with their quality of work, their job performance, and the relationships with coworkers. Research demonstrates that stress at work significantly undermines performance and emotional well being, and increases voluntary turnover. Stress also reduces job satisfaction.

Getting sufficient sleep increases job satisfaction, according to research, while also reducing job-related stress. One large study showed sleep-deprived workers perceived their jobs as more demanding, felt that had less control in their work, and also felt their workplaces were less socially supportive. These employees also had higher stress levels, which in turn were linked to worse sleep at a two-year follow up. It's a vicious cycle -- but it can be broken by helping employees tend to their sleep.

Given the effects that sleep has on social relationships and behavior -- both in the workplace itself and in other areas of life -- the importance of sleep to employee relations and performance is underestimated only at an employers' detriment. Too often, that is what happens. But it doesn't have to be that way. Leadership and transformation about sleep needs to come from leaders and employers themselves. As you'll see in the next installment, leadership and management also vulnerable to the difficult, diminishing effects of sleep loss.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™