I know from personal experience that when starting a business and  bootstrapping your way to  profitability, you have to skimp on a lot of things. Unfortunately, one of the first things to go is also one of the most important things not to skimp on:  sleep.

If I could go back now and talk to my younger self, I would say forget staying up late into the night to work. Get a good night's sleep and watch your productivity soar. And science agrees with me.

Matthew Walker, who is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and also the head of the school's Center for Human Sleep Science, says overworked employees who don't get enough sleep are actually detrimental to business productivity.

In a recent opinion piece, Walker says he finds it strange how businesses have policies that deal with smoking, substance abuse, unethical behavior and safety, but a dangerous issue like employees having a lack of sleep is ignored. Some businesses, the sleep expert says, even have an "entrenched mentality, and often enforced practice, of longer work hours and less sleep."

There still exists a belief among business owners, Walker notes, that the amount of time spent on a task is equal to the amount of productivity for that task. The professor calls this belief a "misguided fallacy" and questions why we tend to glorify CEOs who claim to get out of bed at 5 a.m. and who brag about how little they sleep.

Far from being the productive people they are made out to be, sleepy employees -- including high-level executives like CEOs -- tend to be unproductive and generate fewer ideas and less accurate solutions to problems they encounter at work, Walker says.

Many of the key performance indicators businesses like to keep track of like net revenue, goal-accomplishment speed, and general commercial success have to rely on employee traits that are negatively affected by a lack of sleep.

These traits include:  

  • creativity

  • intelligence

  • motivation

  • effort

  • efficiency

  • effectiveness when working in groups

  • emotional stability

  • sociability

  • honesty

Early studies undertaken at the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley have demonstrated shorter amounts of sleep predict not only a lower work rate, but also slower completion speed of basic tasks.

In those studies, Walker and his associates gave people the chance to choose tasks of varying effort from easy (listening to voicemails) to difficult (helping design a complex project).  People who slept less in the preceding days consistently chose the easier tasks, likely because they were too tired deal with the more challenging tasks.

Walker says this means employees who lack sleep are not driving businesses forward with productive innovation and are taking longer to accomplish their basic goals.  

This also goes for leaders, he says. A leader who is not rested and is therefore not effective can have trickle down consequences on those under them. In one study Walker cites, researchers tracked the sleep of supervisors over the course of a few weeks and also kept track of how their teams graded their leadership. On the days after the leaders did not get enough sleep, their teams noted they were less charismatic, had worse self-control and were more abusive to others. Worse yet, the employees themselves became less engaged in their jobs because of their boss' sleep deprivation.

Walker calls sleep the "greatest form of physiologically injected venture capital and competitive advantage any business could dream of."

So, if well rested employees are good for business, what can you do to promote good sleep habits among your staff?

Make getting enough sleep an unofficial policy at your business.

Talk about it in your employee handbook, during orientations and even during the hiring process. Make it a known part of the corporate culture by talking about your personal experience. Make it "cool" to be well rested. I tell my employees that I'd rather see them doing almost anything at work than yawning.

Include restfulness as part of your benefits.

As part of your employees' benefits package, you can include things that specifically promote restfulness, like massage therapy or help for purchasing sleep aids like specialized pillows or treatment for insomnia. Depending on your business, you could try procuring discounts on high quality mattresses for employees. Or maybe some kind of small loan deal with the business so they could afford a decent mattress. We can't yet afford expensive sleep pods but they're on the wish list for our team.

Increasing the productivity of your business doesn't mean working harder, it means working smarter and even living smarter. Ditch any aversion to sleep you may have, get the rest you need and encourage others in your organization to do the same.

Published on: Apr 13, 2018