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Sleep deprivation will cost your business

Dec 22, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“It’s clear that sleep deprivation can lead to disastrous workplace mishaps, with some of the worst accidents on record, including the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, occurring between 2 and 4 a.m., when the effects of sleep deprivation are most pronounced. But what happens to team dynamics and problem-solving capabilities when one or more members have failed to get enough rest?
That question served as the…starting point for a study that deconstructed the effects of sleep deprivation on teams as varied as highly specialized surgical units and groups of accountants working on a company audit. Broadly speaking, the research showed that “burning the midnight oil”, often seen as a sign that employees are motivated and responsible, can lead to a significant decline in team performance and decision making.”

Strategy+Business (Winter 2008)

The folks at S+B were reviewing a new research paper: “Sleep Deprivation and Decision-making Teams: Burning the Midnight Oil or Playing with Fire?”, written by Christopher M. Barnes and John R. Hollenbeck, to be published in the Academy of Management Review, in January 2009.

It caught my (sleepy) eye as this is a common experience for managers and leaders across the world. I have certainly had to work very strange hours at many times in my career. It is almost a badge of honour, a sign of seriousness, a mark of commitment to the cause, that you can work all hours when needed.

And yet this practice is doing great harm, not just to individuals and their families, but to the organisation itself.

Those of you who have young children will know that there are few things more fearsome in the world than a sleep-deprived infant. If your toddler didn’t get a full night’s sleep for whatever reason, watch out! That child will be cranky, unreasonable and unfocused for the whole of the next day, until the sleep deficit is made up.

Why do we think it’s any different for grown-ups? My own observation of myself and all the various managers I have worked with confirms that a sleep deficit induces very similar behaviour in adults. They will arrive at work in a daze, will not be able to grasp details or nuances, and will snap at their juniors all day long. What good is that to anyone?

Leaders are squarely to blame for this state of affairs. They are the ones who impose the silly standard that work overwhelms all other aspects of life, and managers cannot be taken seriously or expect to progress unless they are willing to make serious sacrifices in terms of personal time. But regularly eating into your employees’ family time and sleep time is just plain unenlightened. All companies and leaders make a lot of noise about “work-life balance” these days – but it’s mostly lip service. The subtext and hidden messages are quite clear to employees: you have to put in the crazy hours in order to impress the boss.

The better bosses I have worked with know this is detrimental, and set their standards accordingly. Some even tell managers off for burning the midnight oil – on the basis that working all hours is not “working smart”, it’s “working stupid”. If work cannot be done during the hours alloted to it, then there is something wrong with either the employee’s ability to focus, or with the work allocation process. The reason we have to work regularly at night or weekends is because we fritter away all our working time attending inane meetings, dealing with unneeded e-mail, or having pointless conversations with colleagues.

There is, of course, a time when it’s all hands on deck and all hours needed. No complaints about that. But when staff are being routinely asked to work evenings and weekends, there is a problem. It’s a leadership problem. The boss must understand before anyone else does that crazy hours actually harm the bottom line by reducing work quality and damaging morale.

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