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Research Triangle Business Advisors

February 2015 Newsletter


An often overlooked productivity killer is employee sleep deprivation.  With the business pressures of scarce resources and shorter project timelines every employee is pressured to work harder and longer hours.  Some executives and managers regularly work 80 hour weeks starting the workday before 7 AM and attending business dinners that run on into the late evening.  Travel across multiple time zones and international travel adds to the stress on sleep.  This article explores the impact of sleep deprivation on the business, sleep physiology and strategies to overcome sleep deprivation. 


  Bob De Contreras





Sleep Deprivation Forces Poor Performance


Several years ago, at the peak of my business travel days I was involved in a minor auto accident. I departed New York at 8 PM for the two hour flight to Austin and an 8 AM meeting in the morning.  It was a bad weather night and the flight was diverted to Chicago to wait out a storm.  Four hours later we departed Chicago and a two hour trip to Austin.  In flight there were still more “air traffic” delays and we didn’t arrive until 3 AM.  By the time I got to the hotel and to bed it was 4 AM.  Three hours of sleep and I was up for my drive to the 8AM meeting. On the way I was stopped at a traffic light and dropped my coffee.  As I leaned over to pick up the cup my foot came off the break peddle and I rolled into the back of the car in front of me.  Yes, after the pain of travel delays and only three hours sleep, I was not functioning at anywhere near normal.

My example highlights a big problem among workers who get too little sleep. Between 2001 and 2006, driver fatigue accounted for more than 1.35 million automobile accidents in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The general effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance is well-known: Stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours, and your reaction speed, short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation all start to suffer. Cut sleep back to five or six hours a night for several days in a row, and the accumulated sleep deprivation magnifies these negative effects.

Sadly, hectic company cultures still confuse sleeplessness with vitality and high performance. An ambitious manager logs 80-hour work weeks, surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and eight cups of coffee a day. A road warrior traveling to Tokyo, St. Louis, Miami, and Zurich, is conducting business in the foggy cloud of caffeinated jet lag. A businessman (me again) takes a red-eye flight, hops into a rental car, and zooms through an unfamiliar city to make a critical meeting at 8 in the morning.

People like this put themselves, their teams, their companies, and the general public in serious jeopardy. Encouraging a culture of sleepless machismo is worse than nonsensical; it is downright dangerous, and the antithesis of good management. Companies have policies designed to prevent employee endangerment—rules against workplace smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual harassment, and so on. But, being “on” pretty much around the clock induces a level of impairment every bit as risky as intoxication.

If we understand the physiological basics of sleep, the message to business leaders is simple: If you want to raise performance—both your own and your organization’s—you need to pay attention to this fundamental biological need.

What does research tell us about the physiology of sleep and cognitive performance?

Four major sleep-related factors affect our cognitive performance. The kinds of work and travel schedules required of business people today pose a significant challenge to their ability to function well, given each of these factors.

The first factor has to do with the “homeostatic” drive for sleep at night, determined largely by the number of consecutive hours that we’ve been awake. Throughout the waking day, human beings build up a stronger and stronger drive for sleep. When we are drowsy, the brain can seize control involuntarily. Once that happens, sleep seizes the brain like a pilot grabbing the controls from the autopilot. If you’re behind the wheel of a car at the time, it takes just three or four seconds to be off the road.

The second factor that determines our ability to sustain attention and maintain peak cognitive performance has to do with the total amount of sleep you manage to get over several days. If you get at least eight hours of sleep a night, your level of alertness should remain stable throughout the day, but if you have a sleep disorder or get less than that for several days, you start building a sleep deficit that makes it more difficult for the brain to function. Executives I’ve observed tend to burn the candle at both ends, with 7 am breakfast meetings and dinners that run late, for days and days. Most people can’t get to sleep without some wind-down time, even if they are very tired, so these executives may not doze off until 2 AM in the morning. If they average four hours of sleep a night for four or five days, they develop the same level of cognitive impairment as if they’d been awake for 24 hours—the equivalent to being legally drunk. This greatly lengthens reaction time, impedes judgment, and interferes with problem solving. In such a state of sleep deprivation, a single beer can have the same impact on our ability to sustain performance as a whole six-pack can have on someone who’s well rested.

The third factor has to do with “circadian phase”—the time of day in the human body that says “it’s midnight” or “it’s dawn.” A neurological timing device called the “circadian pacemaker” works alongside but, paradoxically, in opposition to the homeostatic drive for sleep. This circadian pacemaker sends out its strongest drive for sleep just before we habitually wake up, and its strongest drive for waking one to three hours before we usually go to bed, just when the homeostatic drive for sleep is peaking. Scientists don’t know why it’s set up this way, but they speculate that it has to do with the fact that, unlike other animals, we don’t take frequent catnaps throughout the day. The circadian pacemaker may help us to focus on that big project by enabling us to stay awake throughout the day in one long interval and by allowing us to consolidate sleep into one long interval at night.

The fourth factor affecting performance has to do with what’s called “sleep inertia,” the grogginess most people experience when they first wake up. Just like a car engine, the brain needs time to “warm up” when you awaken. The part of your brain responsible for memory consolidation doesn’t function well for five to 20 minutes after you wake up and doesn’t reach its peak efficiency for a couple of hours. For example, if you sleep on the airplane and the flight attendant wakes you up suddenly upon landing, you may find yourself in baggage claim before you realize you’ve left your laptop behind. There is a transitional period between the time you wake up and the time your brain becomes fully functional. This is why you never want to make an important decision as soon as you are suddenly awakened.

The Effects of Age

Most executives are over 40. When we’re past the age of 40, sleep is much more fragmented than when we’re younger. We are more easily awakened by disturbances such as noise from the external environment and from our own increasing aches and pains. Another thing that increases with age is the risk of sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome, insomnia, and sleep apnea—leading to many brief awakenings.

As we age, the circadian window during which we maintain consolidated sleep also narrows. That’s why airline travel across time zones can be so brutal as we get older. Attempting to sleep at an adverse circadian phase—that is, during our biological daytime—becomes much more difficult. Thus, if you take a 7 pm flight from New York to London, you typically land about midnight in your home time zone, when the homeostatic drive for sleep is very strong, but the local time is 6 am—time to get up.

Lack of Sleep is a Serious Business Problem

Sleep deprivation is not just an individual health hazard; it’s a public one. Consider the risk of occupational injury and driver fatigue. A study of hospital interns who had been scheduled to work for at least 24 consecutive hours, found that their odds of stabbing themselves with a needle or scalpel increased 61%, their risk of crashing a motor vehicle increased 168%, and their risk of a near miss increased 460%. In the U.S., drowsy drivers are responsible for a fifth of all motor vehicle accidents and some 8,000 deaths annually. It is estimated that 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day, 10% of them run off the road, and every two minutes, one of them crashes.

Sleep deprivation among employees poses other kinds of risks to companies as well. With too little sleep, people do things that no CEOs in their right minds would allow. Otherwise intelligent, well-mannered managers do all kinds of things they’d never do if they were rested—they may get angry at employees, make unsound decisions that affect the future of their companies, give incomplete instructions to employees and give muddled presentations before their colleagues, customers, media, or shareholders.

How to address the sleep problem

Managers should set behavioral expectations and develop company sleep policies, just as they already have concerning behaviors like smoking, drinking or drugs. It’s important to have a policy limiting scheduled work—ideally to no more than 12 hours a day, and a maximum of 16 consecutive hours. Furthermore, employees should not be scheduled to work more than 60 hours a week and not be permitted to work more than 80 hours a week. When working at night or on extended shifts, employees should not be scheduled to work more than four or five consecutive days and definitely no more than six consecutive days. People need at least one day off a week, and ideally two in a row, in order to avoid building up a sleep deficiency.

Often, managers rationalize overscheduling employees. I hear them say that if their employees aren’t working, they will be out partying and not sleeping anyway. That may be true for some individuals, but it doesn’t justify scheduling employees to work a hundred hours a week so that they can’t possibly get an adequate amount of sleep. Of course, some circumstances may arise in which you need someone to remain at work for more than 16 consecutive hours. For example, in a major M&A activity with a tight deadline, key players can’t just walk off the job to get sleep, so you will need to have a provision for exceptional circumstances, such as offering a taxi or car service home for a sleep-deprived worker.

Companies also need travel policies. For example, direct employees to avoid taking red-eye flights, which severely disrupt sleep. If someone must travel overnight internationally, the policy should allow the employee to take an extra day to adapt to the sleep deprivation associated with the flight and the new time zone before driving or conducting business. And the sleep policy should not permit anyone, under any circumstances, to take an overnight flight and then drive to a business meeting right after landing. They should at least be provided a taxi, car service, or shuttle.

Companies can do other things to promote healthy sleep practices among employees. Educational programs about sleep, health, and safety should be mandatory. Employees should learn to set aside an adequate amount of time for sleep each night and to keep their bedrooms dark and quiet and free of all electronic devices—televisions, smartphones, and so on. They should learn about the ways alcohol and caffeine interfere with sleep. When someone is sleep deprived, drinking alcohol only makes things worse, further eroding performance and increasing the propensity to fall asleep while also interfering with the ability to stay asleep.

Strategies Employees Can Use to Get by Until They Get Sleep

Though there is no known substitute for sleep, there are a few strategies you can use to help sustain performance temporarily until you can get a good night’s sleep. Obviously, employees can drink caffeine (coffee/tea), which is the most widely used wake-promoting therapeutic in the world. Power Naps can be very effective at restoring performance, and if they are brief—less than a half hour—they will induce less grogginess upon awakening. Being in a novel or engaging situation will also help you stay alert. Exercise, standing while working at your desk and exposure to bright light are all very helpful. Human beings are amazingly sensitive to light. In fact, the color of light may also be important. Exposure to shorter wavelength blue light is particularly effective in suppressing melatonin production, thereby allowing us to stay awake during our biological night. Photon for photon, looking up at the blue sky, for example, is more effective in both resetting our biological clock and enhancing our alertness than looking down at the green grass.


Employee lack of sleep is as dangerous in the workplace as drugs, intoxication and sexual harassment.  Therefore it’s important for company executives and managers to understand the issue and strategies for dealing with it. Key strategies are making the problem visible, providing mandatory training and setting policies.  The time to start is now, before something bad happens to the company or its employees.


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