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How Sleep Deprivation Affects Employee Productivity

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Employee Productivity

Article written by John Breese

Modern society often portrays sacrificing sleep for work as an important trait of a truly dedicated person. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Sleep deprivation, besides being a trigger to many health disorders, can literally ruin a career. So, if you don’t prioritize sleep, you may end up with the following outcomes.

1. Impaired Cognitive Abilities

The first organ to suffer from sleep deprivation is the brain. And there are at least two reasons for that.

Waste Buildup

During the day, our brain uses many nutrients and neurotransmitters to communicate with neural cells and internal organs. As these compounds break down, they leave byproducts that are harmful to the brain — for example, beta-amyloids, which are specific parts of amino acids. Many scientists link the presence of beta-amyloid peptides to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The thing is, our brain can cleanse itself from these byproducts with the help of a cellular pathway called the glymphatic system. But to literally clear the head, one needs to enter the deep sleep phase, as that’s what makes the glymphatic system work. Thus, if a person is sleep-deprived, the waste continues to build up in their cerebrospinal fluid, leading to grogginess and tension headaches. Which definitely isn’t a characteristic of a productive employee.

Nutrients Depletion

Besides helping our brain do a clean-up, our body does lots of other things during sleep. It repairs cells and restores energy deposits in the muscle and liver to prepare for the next period of wakefulness.

Since glucose is the primary fuel for our brain cells, by staying up late, we literally put our brain in a starvation mode, making it unable to function properly.

All of this will negatively affect work productivity, leading to:

  • slower reaction time;
  • shorter attention span and inability to focus;
  • impulsive behavior instead of strategic thinking.

Moreover, these outcomes can be dangerous and lead to various accidents, especially if a person works with machinery or drives a car to get from work to home. Quick fact: Drowsy driving is a major concern in the US. According to the National Safety Council, every year about 100,000 police-reported car crashes involve drowsy driving. So, sacrificing sleep in order to become the best employee of the month not only may bring the opposite results but also can be very dangerous.

2. Poor Emotional Control

Staying without sleep for 24 hours or more will also negatively affect emotions. And since the emotional climate is one of the cornerstones of a great working team, continuous sleep deprivation of the employees can lead to tension or even completely ruin the cooperation spirit.

But how exactly does a sleep-deprived employee turn into a ticking bomb? The answer, again, is in our brain.

Our brain has a specific region called the amygdala. It controls immediate emotional responses to external stimuli. However, when a person is sleep-deprived, the amygdala goes into overdrive mode and makes these reactions more intense. This may result in snapping at colleagues or losing temper at the meeting with the boss.

And that’s not it!

Besides firing up the amygdala, sleep deprivation also impairs its connection with the prefrontal cortex, which is another region of the brain involved in emotional regulation. The prefrontal cortex is like a ‘stop’ signal for our impulses. And when one’s lacking sleep, it can’t do its job either, making an employee less susceptible to criticism and judgment, as well as less thoughtful in their emotional responses.

A 3-month self-reported study conducted on 40 managers showed that those who were sleep-deprived were also more likely to demonstrate abusive and antagonizing behavior towards their subordinates. Given the fact that some regular employees also constantly lack sleep and thus may also behave inappropriately, the relationships within the team can suffer.

3. Increased Risks of Catching a Cold

Finally, sleep-deprivation can affect physical health as well. As we sleep, our body produces specific proteins called cytokines. Cytokines take part in fighting viruses and pathogens, and some of them can serve as fuel for white blood cells, helping them grow. If a person consistently lacks sleep, the concentration of cytokines in their blood drops, which makes them easy prey for germs and viruses.

Along with that, sleep deprivation is a huge stress for the whole body, leading to elevated levels of cortisol. Cortisol is the main trigger of inflammation processes in the body, so it can additionally weaken the immune system and increase the risks of getting sick.

How to Get Rid of Sleep Debt?

So, how can an employee cope with an accumulated sleep debt to become more productive and avoid all the aforementioned negative outcomes? Well, these simple things will help:

  • Fixed sleep schedule. Falling asleep and waking up at nearly the same time every day can do wonders for sleep quality. The easiest way to do this is to shift the timing gradually, 15-20 minutes at a time. This allows our body to properly adjust to a new routine.
  • Naps work better than a cup of coffee in terms of boosting energy, but if a person doesn’t schedule them right, they can really mess with their sleep. To avoid that, it’s better not to take naps longer than 30 minutes so that the brain wouldn’t enter the deep sleep phase with the following sleep inertia.

Prioritizing sleep. Finally, if the working schedule is the main culprit for sleep deprivation, certain changes may be necessary. This can be a new job or a dialog with the management at the current job, with the goal of getting a more flexible schedule. Because a well-rested employee is a productive employee.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Please seek the advice of a qualified health providers with questions related to medical conditions.


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