Before you learn about the 3 surprising ways sleep can boost your career, let’s look at some startling statistics:
- “35% of adults don’t get enough sleep (7 hours per day) according to the CDC.”(1)
- “Most sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, yet less than one-third of sufferers seek professional help.”(2)
The next time you’re in a meeting, look around the room.
Are you the person who’s not getting enough quality sleep and isn’t doing anything about it?
In celebration of World Sleep Day, let’s take a look at just a few ways that improving your sleep situation can impact the quality of your work, your productivity, and your career.
Showing Up: In Mind & In Body
First, “showing up” means actually being at work or if you’re remote, working and producing when you’re supposed to be.
Yet “46% of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances report missing work or events . . . compared to 15% of healthy sleepers.”(3) The impression you want to leave with your boss, your colleagues, and your clients must be one of availability (with reasonable boundaries of course!). Not showing up can lead to a bad impression (“why is s/he never around?”) or cause influencers to forget you when it’s time for the next assignment or promotion. Forgetting your face can also mean those great ideas you had get forgotten at best; at worst, someone else gets credit.
Why are poor sleepers absent from work? Many of them have compromised immune systems and are getting sick, especially this time of year when influenza cases are high. In his popular TED talk, Matt Walker describes a study showing that just one night of short sleep reduces the body’s natural killer T cells–those responsible for rooting out unwanted pathogens–by 70%!(4)
Showing up isn’t just about physical presence. It also means being mentally present and available for creative and critical thinking. Some “next day effects of poor quality sleep include a negative impact on our attention span, memory recall and learning.”(5) If you’re physically present but your mind can’t focus, you won’t be able to make relevant connections, identify critical themes, or process new information. It’s therefore unlikely you’ll be able to provide valuable contributions that make you stand out.
Being a Team Player
Most organizations place a high value on collaboration and communication. When I worked as a User Experience Design Manager and had to give and receive yearly performance reviews, “Communication”, “Collaboration”, and “Team Player” were not just standard categories, but also skills we were expected to speak to with specific examples.
Working with external vendors, partners, clients, and customers requires skills and savvy. Even the best sleepers can have their patience tested. Even the sharpest professionals need to be creative about how they’re influencing others. Being a team player means successfully navigating different personalities to get buy-in for your ideas or to move projects forward, all without coming across as overly aggressive or selfish.
Accomplishing these tasks while maintaining the collaborative, “team player” spirit is a tricky balancing act. Doing this while tired? Even if you do manage to achieve your goals, you may be leaving unfavorable impressions along the way. What’s worse, you may not recognize the damage being done to your career until it’s too late.
When we suffer from insomnia or are otherwise sleep deprived, we can experience a “change in character” as well as a change in the way we “interact socially”(6). Our mood is impacted too: “. . . people who are sleep deprived report increases in negative moods (anger, frustration, irritability, sadness) and decreases in positive moods.(7)
In 2018 Zlatan Krizan, professor of psychology at Iowa State, published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General(8) about sleep restriction and anger, specifically. The results? “In general, anger was substantially higher for those who were sleep restricted,” Krizan said.
Do you know an angry non-sleeper?
Usually this person is barking orders, interrupting to offer their point of view, and not listening to other input. Small challenges become larger obstacles, or full on drama-fests. The reaction from others becomes one of avoidance, not just for meetings but for 1-1s as well. Without realizing it, the angry non-sleeper becomes more isolated from his/her colleagues and can become confused when confronted with a negative review in the “team player” category.
Better sleep won’t necessarily make you a better team player. But NOT sleeping well could have a significant impact on how you’re coming across to the people you regularly interact with: your peers, your direct reports, and those who have significant power over your future.
High Quality Decision Making
How many decisions do you expect to make at work today? According to some estimates, the average adult makes about 35,000 conscious decisions each day(9)–and we all know choices come with consequences, both positive & negative.
Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to make riskier decisions without realizing it(10).
In some professions like medicine, a risky decision that doesn’t pan out can result in the highest cost: death. In others like finance, it can mean losing precious funds and therefore security or independence for oneself or clients. In software or hardware development, it can mean shipping a faulty product that costs millions in recalls and public relations damage control.
And what about just making it to and from work, or meetings? Since we’ve been driving for years, it may feel like we autopilot; but successfully navigating between destinations requires numerous decisions for even the shortest commute. Driving while tired has been shown to be equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol(11). A risky decision that doesn’t pan out means you may not be around to even qualify for that professional recognition tomorrow.
The best leaders exercise sound judgement and make high-quality decisions that positively impact their customers, employees, and therefore their businesses. They are consistent, and also know when to change course to adapt to the times. Have you ever worked with or for someone who seems to make hasty, irrational decisions with no clear rationale to back them up? Could be they’re coasting on a 4-hour sleep cycle.
Keep Yourself in Business: Prioritize Your Sleep
In sum, if you’re a professional looking to get the next promotion, shatter the glass ceiling, or otherwise kick ass at work, making your sleep a priority is a requirement for success.
If you’re the sleep challenged person in the meeting, you’re already working with a handicap.
Your colleagues who are sleeping well–as well as those who struggle and ARE taking action to resolve their sleep problems–will be showing up more consistently (in mind and body), be easier to interact with (less irritable and angry), and be making more strategic decisions.
Though people may recognize their sleep isn’t great, or that they aren’t getting enough, most of them don’t consider the true cost of not sleeping well in terms of their career. If one wants to perform at high levels of excellence AND enjoy their job, great sleep isn’t optional. It’s like the athlete who dreams of making it to the Olympics, but eats a fast / junk food diet.
So if you’re one of the 35% of people who isn’t getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep at night, please read this part carefully, even if it’s a little uncomfortable:
If you continue to ignore your sleep, you’re allowing the performance gap between you and your colleagues to potentially widen.
To maintain your productivity, keep your career moving in the right direction and overcome this handicap, you MUST do something. A course in mindfulness, collaboration, or decision-making could be useful. But retraining yourself to get high-quality, refreshing sleep on a nightly basis could be the best professional investment you ever make.
(1) 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(2) Léger D; Bayon V; Societal costs of insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, Dec2010; 14(6): 379-389. ISSN: 1087-0792 PMID: 20359916
(3) National Sleep Foundation
(4) Sleep is Your Superpower, TED Talk by Matt Walker
(5) Ohayon MM, Partinen M. Insomnia and global sleep dissatisfaction in Finland. J Sleep Res. 2002;11(4):339-46.
(6) Pilcher JJ. Sleep quality versus sleep quantity: relationships between sleep and measures of health, well-being and sleepiness in college students. J Psychosom Res. 1997; 42(6): 583-96
(7) Mood & Sleep, Better Health Channel https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/Mood-and-sleep
(8) Lack of sleep intensifies anger, impairs adaptation to frustrating circumstances, Science Daily; Iowa State University
(9) How Many Daily Decisions Do We Make? UNC TV Science
(10) Why Getting Too Little Sleep Could Lead To Risky Decision Making by David DiSalvo, Forbes Magazine
(11) Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving: How Similar Are They?, Sleep Foundation.org