Why executives need to wake up to the importance of sleep

Professor Vicki Culpin specialises in well-being research, specifically related to memory and sleep. She has spent nearly 20 years researching memory, the impact of poor memory, how to improve memory and the effects of reduced sleep with a variety of individuals including older adults, children, and forensic populations.

Why executives need to wake up to the importance of sleep?

When employees are irritable, make bad decisions or seem unfocused or unmotivated, it’s common to blame their behaviour on poor training, workplace politics or problems in the working environment. But the underlying issue could be much simpler: a lack of sleep.

Our research has found that lack of sleep may trigger problems ranging from workplace performance difficulties to emotional and physical health issues. These problems can affect people of all ages and levels in a business, with significant consequences for co-workers, teams and the overall organisation.

The wide-ranging impacts of sleep loss

Our study – “The Wake-up call: The importance of sleep in organisational life” – asked three key questions:

1. How does lack of sleep affect professionals’ work performance, physical health, and social and emotional life?

2. Does the amount and quality of sleep change with age?

3. How does lack of sleep affect senior managers in particular?

To find answers, we surveyed 1,055 respondents of varying ages from across the UK, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Asia and Africa. Participants included a range of workplace positions.

All age groups reported averaging less sleep than the minimum seven hours recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Science. And they reported many areas in which sleep loss affected their workplace performance, motivation and health.

“This report,” we concluded, “is a call to action and provides an opportunity for individuals, those responsible for developing others and organisations to understand the ways that sleep loss affects employees, and begin to address them to enhance individual and organisational longevity and success.”

Sleep loss harms business performance

Across all organisational levels, respondents named several ways in which a lack of sleep affected them at work. The top effects included becoming quickly frustrated, loss of focus, difficulty working with challenging colleagues, difficulty concentrating on daily objectives and taking longer to complete tasks.

“Lack of sleep is therefore, potentially, a key driver in the drop in performance quality of employees,” we note. “Worryingly for professional development, over 50 percent of each professional group reported that sleep loss reduced the motivation to learn.”

Different generations feel different impacts

Sleep loss appears to have a great impact on the youngest members of the workforce – the 20- to 34-year-olds who make up Generation Y. More than half say their work is affected in some way, and 65 percent report losing their motivation to learn.

While lack of sleep affects workers of all ages, it’s interesting to note the proportion of those reporting these effects is lower for Generation X employees and lower still for the oldest cohort, the Baby Boomers. Some research suggests ageing decreases the impacts of sleep loss on cognitive functioning. However, it might also be possible that older workers have more experience managing lack of sleep or are reluctant to report negative impacts.

Of course, across all generations, different individuals will have different abilities to tolerate various levels of sleep loss.


Sleep deprivation has been found to have a measurable impact on motivation in the workplace: 72 percent of our respondents said they found it difficult to motivate themselves when they didn’t get enough sleep, and 69 percent said they wanted to be left alone. These effects will ripple across an organisation, especially when they involve sleep-deprived, demotivated leaders.

Secret symptoms

Our research also found that lack of sleep can result in both physical and mental health issues. These range from lethargy, stress, headaches and increased appetite to cold and virus symptoms, panic attacks and palpitations.

We note that, “For no other reason than maintaining the health and productivity of existing employees, leaders should undertake to examine in detail any correlation between lack of sleep and health problems in their own organisations.”

Impacts on senior leadership

Senior leaders in our survey identified a number of performance impacts related to lack of sleep. These included difficulties with the following:

• Altering management style to different situations

• Analysing information from a variety of sources

• Formulating opinions

• Being mindful of impact on others

• Making decisions

• Having strategic conversations

If lack of sleep strongly hinders data analysis, opinion forming and strategic decision-making and manifests itself with behaviour demonstrating frustration and anger, then the whole organisation will suffer.

Take action to prevent sleep loss costs

Recognising all this, how can business leaders and executives ensure sleep loss doesn’t lead to individual, team and organisational problems?

• Put sleep loss on the agenda: talk about it at work, share success stories and highlight role models

• Create travel policies that give employees time to catch up on sleep after business trips

• Encourage breaks for rest before major meetings, big decisions and the start of new programmes

• Promote work-life balance and healthy lifestyles

• Recognise different individuals’ sleep and work needs, and create flexible ways of working

• Stay alert to sleep loss symptoms and warning signs

The Transformational Leader program

We offer a range of programs to help your talent develop resilience, at the individual, team and organisational level. The Transformational Leader is just one of our programs which explores this topic and can be delivered face to face or virtually.

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Hult International Business School 
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