How sleep deprivation can impact employee productivity

Tired woman in the office

In today’s employment world, sacrificing sleep for work is sometimes seen as an important trait of a truly dedicated person. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Sleep deprivation, besides being a trigger for many health disorders, can ruin a career. If you don’t prioritize sleep, you may end up suffering from the issues discussed in this post.

Impaired cognitive abilities

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

1. Waste buildup

During the day, the 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—beta-amyloids, for example, which are specific parts of amino acids. Many scientists link the presence of beta-amyloid peptides to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain is able cleanse itself of these byproducts with the help of a cellular pathway called the glymphatic system. But to literally clear the head, a person needs to enter the deep sleep phase, as that makes the glymphatic system work. That means if a person is sleep-deprived, the waste continues to build up in their cerebrospinal fluid, leading to grogginess and tension headaches. Those definitely are not characteristics of a productive employee.

2. Nutrient depletion

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

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

All of this negatively affects 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 accidents, especially if a person works with machinery or drives a car to get to and from work. Quick fact: Drowsy driving is a major concern in the U.S. 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 Employee of the Month not only may bring the opposite result, but also can be very dangerous.

Poor emotional control

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

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

The 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 someone losing his temper in a meeting with the boss.

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 a person’s 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.

three-month self-reported study conducted on 40 managers showed those who were sleep-deprived were also more likely to demonstrate abusive and antagonizing behavior toward 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.

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 risk 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? 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 the 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 the brain doesn’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 dialogue 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 provider with questions related to medical conditions.

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