“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”.

You’ve heard it before. This notorious mantra has been coined by many, from politicians to pop-culture icons. Modern society is permeated with this attitude towards sleep, treating it as something we can forego for the sake of our busy schedules. 

Within corporate culture this attitude remains particularly insidious; we’ve all heard stories of the entrepreneurs heralded for late-night stints in the office and 4 am wake up routines. 

However, shunting our shut-eye may have greater repercussions than we realise. Quite ironically, UK employers alone lose an estimated 47 million hours of work every year due to sleep deprivation, totalling a colossal £453 million in productivity loss. 

Furthermore, overwhelming evidence has now linked chronic sleep deprivation to almost all major psychiatric conditions and countless physical ailments, including weakened immune system, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer. 

So, why aren’t more business leaders giving sleep the mainstage it deserves when trying to improve employee wellbeing? Can we actually survive on 6 hours of sleep a night, or are sleep and employee productivity intrinsically linked?

‘Sleep on it’ 

When we think of someone with sleep deprivation we likely picture a parent up all night with a newborn, or an exhausted nurse at the end of a 12-hour shift; but in fact, sleep deprivation is characterised as anyone who regularly gets less than 7 hours of sleep a night. 

The saying ‘sleep on it’, doesn’t just come from anywhere. Research has shown that sleep, in particular getting 7 hours of good quality sleep, is crucial for a recurring process of learning and memory. 

Good quality sleep prepares our brains for optimal learning, whether this is semantic (factual information), procedural (routines) or episodic information (times and locations). Further research has shown that in those who regularly get less than 7 hours of sleep a night, all of these vital cognitive processes become impaired. 

Employees who are sleep deprived, or suffer from poor quality sleep, have therefore been found to be less creative, produce fewer ideas, and take longer to complete even basic tasks. What’s more, they have actually been found to like their jobs less, and are more likely to be unsatisfied and unfulfilled in their roles. 

It’s easy to see how a few seemingly innocent late nights here and there can quickly turn into a dangerous negative feedback loop throughout the week or over a period of months; compounding lack of sleep with lower productivity. 

Unfortunately, your sleep-deprived employees, no matter how impressive their CVs, aren’t going to be driving innovation or acting as your organisation’s advocate.

Example employee sleep dataset from BioBeats employee wellbeing programme data

Sleep data from BioBeats app users 
There is a double-dip pattern in sleep duration; intentions to get enough sleep start off well on Sunday night and drops over the Monday and Tuesday nights. Things pick up again on Wednesday night, dropping again on Thursday before finally peaking on Friday and Saturday night.

Rethinking the 9 to 5

The rigidity of the 9-5 may also be partially to blame for that dent on the bottom line. Our internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm, determines the pattern of wakefulness and sleep that our bodies naturally fall into. However, this pattern is not the same for everyone; which is where the divide between the well known “morning larks” and “night owls” comes from. 

The extent to which you are on the morning lark/night owl spectrum is known as a chronotype; this is biological and strongly determined by genetics. For employees who aren’t, in the literal sense, “morning people”, the same consequences of sleep deprivation and productivity loss occur when they are required to work hours where they aren’t functioning optimally. 

Flexible working hours however, allow employees to work with their chronotype, benefiting not only personal health and wellbeing, but also business practice when the implications on productivity are taken into account.

A vital pillar for health

When we are busy, sleep often becomes the first thing we neglect. In the context of the workplace, this problem is rooted in the misconception that ‘time-on-task’ equates to higher output and productivity. 

But in fact, research shows that getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night is detrimental to cognitive functioning, productivity and general health. 

If employers really want to improve productivity and tackle mounting absence costs, recognising the importance of sleep, incorporating sleep hygiene into employee wellbeing initiatives and moving toward flexible hours that allow employees to work at their optimum is crucial.

Sleep and employee productivity are two sides of the same coin. So, it’s time we took steps toward a society that values our shut-eye for what it is – a vital pillar for health.