Sleep deprivation damaging business

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UK workers are sleep deprived across the board, but senior leaders are more likely to play down its impact on performance.

UK employees are not getting enough sleep, with junior members of staff reporting a more negative impact on their performance than senior managers, according to Ashridge Business School.

It surveyed more than 1,000 professionals about their sleeping habits. The results have been seen exclusively by HR magazine.

On average, individuals should get 7.5 hours of sleep per night, but Ashridge’s research found workers at all levels were only getting an average of 6.47 hours.

The study also asked people about how sleep deprivation affects their performance. It found those in non-managerial positions reported more negative cognitive, emotional and physical effects from the lack of sleep than those in more senior positions.

Respondents were told how a lack of sleep could affect their work, and physical or social performance. They were then asked to compare themselves on a scale of one to five.

Those in non-managerial roles said sleep deprivation affected them at a level of 3.2576. Chief executives rated themselves less affected, at 3.2447.

While those numbers do not look too different, Ashridge Business School dean of faculty and director of research Vicki Culpin told HR magazine they are “significantly different”. 

Culpin said there are four possibilities why senior managers did not report sleep deprivation as affecting them as highly. She said big business often has a “macho culture” that makes it acceptable for leaders to report a lack of sleep, but not to admit it has a negative effect on them.

Senior leaders could lack self-awareness, she added, as they may not receive honest feedback about their behaviour when sleep deprived. They may have developed “coping mechanisms” for dealing with a lack of sleep. Culpin also suggested some people might have managed to reach a senior leadership position because they are “physically hardwired” not to be as negatively affected by poor sleep.

The research cited evidence to show sleep deprivation impacts heavily on business performance and is related to mental illnesses.

“HR has some responsibility but it is also the individual’s responsibility,” said Culpin. “It is about making them aware of the potential consequences of some of their decisions but also supporting employees.”

Ashridge Business School researcher Ayiesha Russell added that “sleep hygiene” is “integral” to both organisational and personal performance.

She added: “One of the most important things HR directors can do is make the topic of sleep deprivation visible throughout the organisation, from the boardroom [down].

“If HRDs can find and share stories of people who have managed their sleep and improved their performance, this will help to reinforce its relevance, increase employee awareness, and help employees and HR work together to enhance wellbeing and organisational success.”

Technology and globalisation are contributing to an ‘always on’ business culture that could lead to sleep deprivation becoming more common. ADP UK HR director Annabel Jones told HR magazine sleep deprivation can have a “huge impact” on productivity.

“HR has a duty to ensure employees and managers are aware of the potential risks, and know how to deal with a lack of sleep,” she said. “The reasons may be work-related, and HR should try to minimise stress through health and wellbeing schemes.”

She added that while flexible working can help tackle sleep loss, education is vital. “It is important to educate workers about the signs and symptoms of sleep deprivation, and encourage them to discuss this with their manager, seek medical advice and take regular breaks.”

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