Why Sleep Is a Strategic Resource

Research shows that sleep deprivation has a number of consequences that can affect work performance negatively. So why do so many modern workplaces condone practices that are not conducive to healthy sleep schedules?

What do PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and Martha Stewart have in common? They don’t need much sleep; it has been publicly reported that each regularly gets only six hours of sleep or less per night. By discussing their ability to get by with little sleep, these executives are serving as role models for a norm that a full night’s sleep is optional, even a luxury, if you want to get ahead in business.

We believe that in this regard, these executives are not setting a good example, especially when it comes to getting the best performance out of the talent in an organization. Generally speaking, managers assume that simply getting the right talent in their organizations will lead to high levels of productivity. But this assumption ignores the fact that people often do not function at their best on an everyday basis. When work demands are high, people can become stressed, “burned out” and generally fatigued — resulting in compromised performance.

Simple as it sounds, regular sleep is the best antidote for a fatigued or stressed-out workforce. Of course, because sleep is in the realm of employees’ private lives, organizations have generally shied away from trying to influence it, even in an era of controlling health-care costs through encouraging preventive behaviors.

Worse, many organizations have leaders who actively model behaviors that are not conducive to healthy sleep schedules. For example, if a leader regularly arrives at the crack of dawn or stays late into the evening, he or she is setting the expectation that others need to be at the office at all hours of the day and night — potentially interfering with good sleep patterns. Moreover, if leaders send emails late in the evening and expect a response before the next morning’s workday, employees will feel pressure to monitor email until late at night.

In this article, we argue that sleep is a strategic resource. Organizations should both encourage and create a sleep-supportive culture and set of practices. We describe the ineffective and even dangerous conditions under which employees work while short on sleep and the variety of effects sleep deprivation has on individual and organizational performance.