Work Needs You to Sleep Now (And Not When You’re Dead)

Written By: Alexandra Levit
January 16, 2015
4 min read

Skipping sleep to work doesn’t put you at an advantage.

Travis Bradberry is the co-author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests and training. About a month ago, Travis published an eye-opening article on sleep and work function for Forbes. He confirmed what I’ve believed all along, which is that sleep is really important for high performers. Here are some of the reasons.

Sleepy People Are Dumber

Travis shared some data from the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, which said that the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood and ability to focus, problem-solve, and access higher-level brain functions. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep. Why is this? Travis cited a University of Rochester study, which found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons. When you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, impairing your ability to think and potentially derailing your career.

Sleepy People Miss Work

Travis remarked that sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. When it is sleep-deprived, your body overproduces cortisol, which wreaks havoc on the immune system. This causes you to get sick more frequently, and stay sicker longer. You’ll also experience a variety of aches and pains that may be enough to send you to the doctor or contagious symptoms that will force you out of the office. Either way, when you’re thinking about how terribly you feel physically, you’re not concentrating about work.

Sleepy People Are Dangerous

As we’ve suggested, sleep deprivation decreases mental accuracy. But for those who work in any kind of job in which reaction time is a factor, it’s also bad news. We see news stories all the time about pilots, manufacturing employees, etc., who get into serious accidents because they aren’t getting enough sleep. And if you commute, sleep deprivation could be enough to kill you. Falling asleep at the wheel is a major cause of driving-related fatalities.

Sleepy People Are Bad Colleagues

Productivity and safety factors aside, being sleep-deprived will negatively impact your workplace relationships. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night in order to feel sufficiently rested, yet more than half of Americans get less than this. One of the most basic symptoms of long-term sleep deprivation is chronic stress and irritability. When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to cope effectively with everyday interactions and stay cool under pressure goes way down, and your fuse blows much more quickly. A sleepy employee runs a much higher risk of being the colleague no one wants to work with.

What’s a Busy Person to Do?

Getting enough sleep is difficult, I agree. Even when I aim for eight hours, it feels like something always gets in the way – from a forgotten blog post to my three-year-old in my room at 5AM. But Travis had some good ideas that can help us do just a bit better.

First, stay away from sleeping pills. You may think you’re helping your body, but the effect is exactly the opposite. Sedatives interfere with the brain’s natural sleep process and greatly decrease the quality of your sleep.

Second, skip that cup of coffee after lunch. It takes a full 24 hours for caffeine to work its way out of your system, so much of the coffee you drink during the work day will keep you awake at bedtime.

Next, get rid of anything that emits a blue light (laptops, smartphones, etc.) in your bedroom. This kind of light halts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes you feel more alert.

Finally, mind the basics. Try to keep your sleep schedule consistent – that is, go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. Use your bedroom only for sleep – that means no working in bed! And to the extent you can control it (see the point about the three-year-old), avoid middle-of-the-night interruptions like an alarm that isn’t set properly.

Recognizing that sleep is critical, and not just a minor annoyance you give in to occasionally, is half the battle. While sleep will surely be plentiful when you’re dead, it will also improve the quality of the time you have here – especially when it comes to work.

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

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