My story with sleep research

I started research on the topic of sleep over 15 years ago, at a time when concepts around sleep and well-being were not popular, or cutting edge, or even talked about very often. It was a time when sleep, and the impact of poor sleep, was largely the domain of sleep clinics in hospitals, where patients were diagnosed with and treated for sleep disorders. It was a time when going without sleep was seen as a badge of honour in organisations, and employees, if they ever dared share their thoughts on sleep, framed their poor sleep hygiene as an implicit message from their employer that they were irreplaceable.

In 2004-2005, I was working at a University as a lecturer, focusing my research on the issue of short-term memory, the topic of my PhD. During this time, I was approached by a colleague, who, as a researcher in a sleep clinic at a UK hospital, was examining the impact of sleep apnoea on cognition.

My colleague knew that I was working in the field of short-term memory, and asked me to join the research project, with a focus on understanding whether individuals with a diagnosis of sleep apnoea were found to have any improvements in their short-term memory after successful treatment for their condition. This seemed like a fantastic research project to be involved in – and it was – even if the sleep aspect became of greater interest to me than the memory aspect!

This is how I began my sleep research and realised what a fascinating topic it was.

My first academic paper on the topic was published in 2006 with a colleague, a forensic psychologist. We wanted to know how poor sleep impacted a specific group of people – young and juvenile offenders detained in prison. There is now a significant body of evidence to show that poor sleep, whether that be quantity or quality, is related to a reduction in the ability to regulate mood. But at the time, the research was less substantial. However, we knew, albeit slightly anecdotally (and from our own experiences) that getting poor sleep over several nights often led to reported increases in feelings of anger, and negative mood. Given that a prison environment is one in which gaining a good night of sleep is very difficult to achieve, we were interested to find out whether the quantity and quality of sleep reported by individuals in a young offender institution was related to their levels of aggression, anger and impulsivity.

It was – our research found that anger, specifically hostility, was related to both quantity and quality of sleep in these participants.

In 2007, I left the Psychology Department that I was working in to join Ashridge Business School, now Hult Ashridge Executive Education. Up until this point, my research on sleep had focused on very specific populations; those with a diagnosed clinical sleep disorder, and male prisoners. I was, however, convinced that the issue of poor sleep was pertinent to a much wider audience – the world of work – and so I began a campaign to work with as many individuals and as many organisations as I could, to share my research, and those of other sleep researchers, on the impact of poor sleep on behaviours most pertinent to working populations - behaviours such as decision making, judgements of risk, creativity and problem solving, short term memory, regulation of mood and higher-level communication skills.

For the next few years, my campaign made slow progress – sleep, and in fact, well-being in general, was not widely discussed, and certainly not at senior levels, with an external consultant from a Business School. Slowly, however, the tide began to turn. It was the perfect storm:

(a) Organisations were increasingly focusing on ‘added value’, such as corporate well-being packages, to attract and retain talent;

(b) Medical equipment such as MRI scanners, started to become available in non-clinical settings such as universities, enabling sleep researchers to study the impact of poor sleep in otherwise ‘healthy’ working populations;

(c) Academics working in the field of sleep medicine began to publish articles that were more accessible to the general population;

(d) Smartphones and smartwatches heralded the start of the ‘sleep technology revolution’, with sleep monitoring and sleep hygiene apps. Individuals are now starting to talk about their sleep, and more importantly, are starting to share, with the line managers and their colleagues, how poor sleep may be affecting their ability to perform at work.

We still have a long way to go – we now need tangible action - at a national level through legislation, the corporate level through policies, procedures and wide-ranging culture change, and the individual level through increased self-awareness and behaviour change.

We are moving in the right direction; We no longer need ‘A Wake-Up Call’, but a ‘Wake Up Call To Action’.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School 
Ashridge Executive Education