Does Your Boss Want You to Sleep?

Academics Christopher M. Barnes and Gretchen Spreitzer call sleep “a key to human sustainability.”

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make people feel lousy. It has consequences that can affect work performance and lead to burn out.

The challenge, though, is that many modern workplaces not only condone practices that aren’t conducive to healthy sleep schedules but also make people who prioritize getting the recommended seven to nine hours feel like they’re somehow not tough enough or committed enough.

In “Why Sleep Is a Strategic Resource,” in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, Christopher M. Barnes (University of Washington’s Foster School of Business) and Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business) say that executives who brag about only needing a handful of hours of sleep “are not setting a good example, especially when it comes to getting the best performance out of the talent in an organization.”

Here are three arguments from their article:

“Regular sleep is the best antidote for a fatigued or stressed-out workforce.”

Sleep-supportive cultures can help talented employees thrive. “Managers assume that simply getting the right talent in their organizations will lead to high levels of productivity,” Barnes and Spreitzer write. But talented people operating in a state of fatigue produces compromised performance.

What’s more, they write, “even small deficits of sleep can have negative consequences.” The loss of just one hour of sleep on one night has been linked to memory declines and increases in workplace injuries.

“Sleep deprivation can lead to lower levels of effort.”

Sleep deprivation plays out in all kinds of negative ways in interpersonal office relationships. Those can includes more frequent unethical behaviors and lower levels of trust and cooperation, say Barnes and Spreitzer. It also can lead to mindless cyberloafing, such as spending too much time on personal email and social media.

Organizations must “allow employees to separate from work when the workday is finished.”

Smartphone habits, the authors maintain, need to be managed so that employees don’t feel they are always “on call.”

Barnes and Spreitzer cite the research of Leslie A. Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School and author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), who found that 26% of managers and professionals admitted to sleeping with their smartphones and 56% said they checked their phone within an hour before going to bed.

Perlow’s recommendation: schedule time away from work when the phone will be turned off.

Barnes and Spreitzer note that “if leaders send messages late in the evening, employees will feel pressure to watch their email late into the night.” They laud the example of one executive who continued to craft emails late at night but used a scheduling feature so that the mail would not be sent until normal business hours in the morning.

“Rather than taking an employee’s sleep as a given, leaders should create sleep-supportive cultures and practices,” argue Barnes and Spreitzer. “Managing work schedules, providing good role models and reinforcing sleep-protecting behaviors can help companies move in the right direction.”