The True Cost of Sacrificing Sleep for Work

If you have the privilege of working from home, you’ve also experienced what it feels like to live at work: Depending on the size of your space and who you share it with, this collapse in context can feel pretty extreme. 

You’ve probably noticed the effect this has had on your sleep. Maybe you’re having a hard time sticking to your pre-pandemic bedtime, or you’re no longer able to sleep for long periods without waking up to anxiety. Whatever the case, you are not alone: “For significant portions of the population, people are sleeping less and sleeping worse during COVID,” says Christopher M. Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the relationship between sleep and work.

Although it may feel like a deeply personal—even isolating—problem, Barnes’ most interesting research raises the question, from different angles: How does one person’s sleep habits influence the people they interact with every day? Those consequences are no more visible than at work. We asked Barnes to help us untangle his research insights about work and sleep—and how we can improve our relationship to both. 

How does sleep affect our work?

Many people think that they can get more work done if they trade away sleep hours for work hours. They are correct—that will increase the quantity of work that you do. But there is a trade-off: You're sacrificing the quality of the work that you do. When people are sleep deprived, they're more likely to make cognitive errors, and it shows up in decision-making tasks and in risk-processing tasks. 

We also see that when people are sleep deprived, their interpersonal interactions suffer. Sleepy people are grumpy and have more variants in their emotional states and have a harder time managing their emotional states. This can spill over into negative interpersonal interactions in a way that's bad for their own work and bad for the work of their colleagues.

What happens when a boss or manager is sleep-deprived?

When leaders are sleep-deprived or suffering from poor-quality sleep, their ability to be good leaders is undermined—largely through diminished self-control. One way this plays out is with regards to abusive supervision: A leader will have potentially frustrating moments at work, and maybe there's a temptation to lash out at others, maybe yell at them in public, maybe call them names in front of their colleagues, that sort of thing. Typical jerky boss behaviors. 

Most of the time, we can suppress those temptations: Bosses know that's not a very nice thing to do, and that it wouldn't be a very effective way to manage this employee, so they decide they’re not going to engage in that behavior. But when you have a poor night of sleep, it's harder to engage in that self-control, and thus people are more likely to cave to that temptation and lash out at their employees.

When people don’t get the sleep quantity and quality that they need, they are less effective at the task of leadership, and they are less effective at managing the relationships involved in leadership.

When people don’t get the sleep quantity and quality that they need, they are less effective at the task of leadership, and they are less effective at managing the relationships involved in leadership. Sleep-deprived leaders are less charismatic in their interactions with their employees. And as a result, sleep-deprived leaders end up having worse working relationships.

Look at the relationship between sleep and work from a bottom-up perspective: When a given individual is sleep-deprived, the quality of their work will suffer. And you can look at it from a top-down perspective: When leaders are sleep-deprived, their effectiveness as a leader will suffer, which influences potentially their entire team.

What Researchers Consider a Good Night's Sleep for Adults

1. Quantity

There is some indication that there might be interpersonal differences in how much sleep we need, but people tend to overestimate that variance between people. Imagine a distribution that's centered around maybe eight hours or so, plus or minus, and then some people may need a bit less than that, some people need a bit more.

But there are a lot of people who think they are short-sleep superheroes. They tell themselves the story that as long as they get four or five good quality hours of sleep, they'll be totally fine. For a tiny segment of the population that might be true: There's a specific genetic mutation that leaves people less vulnerable to the ill effects of sleep deprivation on their performance. Almost nobody is actually in that category, but a lot of people think they're in that category. 

Most of the people who believe they are fine at four or five hours of sleep per night are fooling themselves, and they are ignoring the harm that that sleep deprivation is causing to their performance, their leadership, and ultimately their health as well.

2. Quality

The general rule of thumb is what we really want is uninterrupted sleep. If you find that your sleep is being interrupted multiple times throughout the night, that's especially relevant to evaluating your quality of sleep. What most people need is eight hours of relatively uninterrupted blocks of sleep on a consistent basis.  

3. Sleep Quality and Quantity Over Time

Although it might be obvious that large amounts of sleep deprivation can have harmful consequences to health and work outcomes, small amounts of lost sleep also matter. This is indicated in several studies, one of which indicates that restricting sleep to five hours per night for four nights in a row result in cognitive detriments that are similar to a blood alcohol content of 0.06. 

It's not just missing an entire night of sleep that matters or missing half the night of sleep that matters, but missing even an hour or two can still have meaningful consequences—especially if you stack that up those missed hours over prolonged periods. Try to avoid telling yourself the story that it would be better to get eight hours of sleep every night, but if you get by on five or six instead, it'll be okay. There is definitely something lost in getting five or six hours of sleep compared to getting seven or eight hours of sleep.

From the perspective of productivity and also overall satisfaction at work, what can leaders or managers do to encourage good sleep habits?

In my research, we look at this from the perspective that leaders are both role models as well as behavioral shapers. The way leaders talk about things matters a lot, as well as the rewards and punishments that they dole out based on what other people do. We look at it from both of those perspectives. 

We find that some leaders brag about their sleep deprivation, and they set a poor example by sending emails at 2 a.m. When their subordinates don't respond to emails right away at two in the morning, maybe that leader makes a little snide comment about it. Or, on the opposite side, if the subordinate responds very quickly to an email at two in the morning, that leader might praise that subordinate. These are the sorts of things that leaders do to signal the degree to which sleep is a priority.

We find that when leaders de-value sleep, this leads to their followers sleeping less and sleeping worse as a result, which in turn influences the downstream work outcomes. The work outcome that we looked at in particular here was unethical behavior; I had conducted previous research which indicated that when people are sleep deprived, their proclivity unethical behavior increases. We looked at that in this context as well. What we found is that when leaders de-value sleep, not only do their subordinates sleep less and sleep worse as a result, but those subordinates also engaged in greater levels of unethical behavior.

What are the impacts of working in the same place that you sleep?

As a general principle, to practice good sleep hygiene and good stimulus control, you want to separate your work from your sleep. What you really want is an association between your bed—more generally your bedroom—and sleep. You want to make “bed” and “sleep” a tight pairing. If you work from your bed, you are weakening that association. In fact, you might be creating a new association between bed and work stress. Now you go to bed, try to go to sleep, but instead, you're stressing about work.

We want some behavioral separation between sleep and work. Some people can do that during COVID because they have ample space and can go to a different room, but not everyone has that luxury. People are working from their bedroom, or maybe even worse, from their bed, and I'm sure that's creating the possibility for insomnia.

How can an understanding of your chronotype (night owl vs. morning “lark”) improve your working schedule?

People are pretty good at guessing their own chronotype: It's not going to be a perfect guess, but it's going to be a pretty reasonable guess. If you think you're a night owl, you're probably a night owl. If you think you are what we call a lark, which we call a morning person, you're probably a lark. Use that hypothesis to shape how you try to structure your life. In some of my research we’ve found that if there's a mismatch between someone's chronotype and their work schedule, that can potentially increase the degree to which they engage in unethical behavior, likely because of that detriment in self-control that I mentioned before.

So rather than working a morning schedule if you're an owl, try to find ways to work a night schedule. This works best in a flex-time environment. That's the ideal way: Give people the freedom to match their own work schedules to their chronotypes. It might require having a conversation with your boss about restructuring time to get the most out of it: The boss will potentially get a better employee, and you’ll get a happier life.

Give people the freedom to match their own work schedules to their chronotypes. The boss will potentially get a better employee, and you’ll get a happier life.

One tricky thing about this is that we find a bias in how people are evaluated based on their flex time use. Some people might use their flex time to start their day early, and other people might use flex time to begin their day late. Those two approaches should be equally legitimate as long as people are putting in the same amount of time or putting in the same quality of work—there shouldn't be any difference in the way they're evaluated.

But we have stereotypes about larks and owls. We find that supervisors tend to rate those who use their flex time to start their day early as higher in conscientiousness and then higher in performance overall than those people who use their flex time to start their days late. So there's a penalty if you use your flex time to start your day late, which I would expect night owls to do. That's just them aligning their work schedules with their chronotype, but we have a bias that works against owls and reveals itself in these performance evaluations. It is especially the supervisors who are larks themselves who hold this stereotype and use this to guide their performance ratings. Supervisors who identify as owls tend to be more forgiving as far as what time of day people start their schedules, so they don't evaluate larks any more harshly than they evaluate owls, or vice versa.

What are the best, research-backed ways to get a good night's sleep?

Some of the easiest steps you can take are also some of the most powerful:

1. Set a consistent pattern of getting to bed at the same time each night. Ideally, that time is early enough to allow a full night of sleep—something close to eight hours of actual sleep time—before you have to get up in the morning. We often get this wrong, especially on the weekends. It's not always the most fun thing to change. 

2. Try to mitigate the degree to which you are exposed heavily to electronic devices, and blue light in particular, in the two to three hours before bedtime. Some devices shift their displays to contain less blue light, and you can set the time for when that happens. Research indicates that when people wear effective blue light glasses two hours before bedtime, it helps them sleep more and improves the quality of their sleep. From my perspective what was most interesting is that it improved their work outcomes as well.

3. Managing caffeine consumption is a big step. It's good to avoid caffeine six-plus hours before bedtime. Ideally more than that, something like twelve hours would be more ideal, but at a minimum five to six hours before bedtime. Caffeine has a half-life of a little more than five hours—meaning after you drink a cup of coffee, five hours later about half of that caffeine is still in your system. If you drink caffeine, say, two hours before bedtime, the majority of that caffeine is still in your system making it difficult to fall asleep. 

Beyond that, many people have insomnia, which’s a tough one to kick on your own. There are insomnia treatment programs. One, in particular, is called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), and there are online versions of that, one of which I've used in my own research. They're relatively cheap to access—especially the automated digital systems—but very effective. In fact, there's some research to indicate that there are as effective as the in-person face-to-face versions. It’s a relatively simple intervention that people can do when they're not sleeping as well as they want. 

Christopher M. Barnes is a professor of management at the Foster School of Business of the University of Washington. His research, which examines human sustainability issues, especially the relationship between sleep and work, has been published in top-tier management and psychology journals, such as the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Psychological Science. You can watch his TED talk on the relationship between work and sleep here.

Nandita KhannaNandita Khanna LA-based content and brand ringmaster.

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