How sleep affects your work productivity

tired woman yawning at work

For months, my life went like this: I put the kids to bed and then returned to my office to work for another two or three hours. By 10 or 11pm, I was exhausted but my brain wouldn’t settle down, so I’d lie in bed for another 30 minutes or more. Then my alarm would go off at 5:30am so I could fit in an early-morning run before the rest of the house woke up. 

All told, I was probably averaging five to six hours of sleep a night. But wow, I was getting a lot done! Or was I? I started to notice that those evening hours I spent working were very slow slogs. Everything I did felt forced. My mind wandered easily. Focusing was a challenge. And my morning runs were no longer invigorating. Instead, I felt as if I were running through a bowl of Jell-O.

Then I did some reading about the restorative power of sleep. It improves mood, concentration and has a host of other benefits that I could really use a dose of. What if I tried to get eight hours instead of five or six?

The results have been life-changing. Unless there’s an emergency, I no longer work in the evening. I stopped waking up early in the morning for a run and instead go out for a walk at lunchtime. Now, I feel more focused when I am at work and capable of completing more in less time. I’m managing stress better, and my memory has improved. (I was really starting to worry about that one.)

Could this all be because of sleep? Experts say yes.  Here are seven ways sleep can improve your life — at work and at home.

Why You Need Your Zzzs

Why You Need Your Zzzs

For months, my life went like this: I put the kids to bed and then returned to my office to work for another two or three hours. By 10 or 11pm, I was exhausted but my brain wouldn’t settle down, so I’d lie in bed for another 30 minutes or more. Then my alarm would go off at 5:30am so I could fit in an early-morning run before the rest of the house woke up. 

All told, I was probably averaging five to six hours of sleep a night. But wow, I was getting a lot done! Or was I? I started to notice that those evening hours I spent working were very slow slogs. Everything I did felt forced. My mind wandered easily. Focusing was a challenge. And my morning runs were no longer invigorating. Instead, I felt as if I were running through a bowl of Jell-O.

Then I did some reading about the restorative power of sleep. It improves mood, concentration and has a host of other benefits that I could really use a dose of. What if I tried to get eight hours instead of five or six?

The results have been life-changing. Unless there’s an emergency, I no longer work in the evening. I stopped waking up early in the morning for a run and instead go out for a walk at lunchtime. Now, I feel more focused when I am at work and capable of completing more in less time. I’m managing stress better, and my memory has improved. (I was really starting to worry about that one.)

Could this all be because of sleep? Experts say yes.  Here are seven ways sleep can improve your life — at work and at home.

You’ll Be More Engaged at Work

You’ll Be More Engaged at Work

Have you ever zoned out during a boring staff meeting? Does staring at your computer screen give you a desperate urge to crawl under your desk for a nap? 

“You don’t fall asleep when you’re bored, you fall asleep when you’re sleep deprived,” says Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator and owner of the Keswick Sleep Institute in Charlottesville, Va. In fact, Cralle says going to work chronically sleep deprived is no different than going to work drunk. 

“If you go 24 hours without sleep, you perform like a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent,” says Cralle, quoting a 2000 British Medical Journal study. The same research showed that after 17 to 19 hours without sleep, test performance was the same as people with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent. That’s the equivalent of a 140-pound woman having two glasses of wine in an hour, according to the University of Notre Dame Blood Alcohol Calculator. And Cralle says that chronic sleep deprivation — only getting five or six hours of sleep regularly — has a similar effect. No wonder I was finding it so hard to concentrate while working late at night.

You’ll Be Better at Problem Solving

You’ll Be Better at Problem Solving

You know that old adage, “If you have a problem, sleep on it?” There’s a lot of truth to it, says Cralle. So if you’re figuratively (or literally) banging your head against a wall trying to solve a problem, stop. Resist the urge to plug away until you find a solution and instead, step away and get some sleep. After all, if it worked for overachievers Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Napoleon (all known to love their naptime), why won’t it work for you?

“Your brain during the night is processing things,” says Cralle. “It is very active at night, and many problems get solved. But the thoughts can be very fleeting, so make sure you have paper or a recorder at your bedside. Write it down right away because the second your feet hit the ground, the ideas tend to get lost.”

You’ll Remember More

You’ll Remember More

Ever forget your newly polished elevator pitch halfway through the speech or blank out while recounting a news story you read the day before? Our ability to commit ideas to memory is compromised when we don’t get enough sleep.

“When you learn something, and get your sleep, you’re able to commit it to memory,” says Cralle. “Studies have shown that people who take a short nap after learning something new do better at recalling information.”

So if you have trouble remembering procedures, deadlines or even people’s names, sleep could be the culprit. Sleep requirements differ by age and gender, so the there’s no magic number. But Cralle regularly challenges her patients to add one hour of sleep to their routine for one week and then see how they feel. “A hundred percent of them come back and say, ‘I forgot what it was like to feel this way’ or ‘I thought only young people felt this way,’” says Cralle.    

You’ll Be More Likeable

You’ll Be More Likeable

We all know that grumpy person at work, the one you dread being teamed up with and really hate having to ask to do anything? More sleep could help prevent you from becoming that person (or reverse the trend if you’ve already slipped down that slope.)

“In the office, a good mood is critical,” says Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute. “We don’t want people who are not part of the team because they’re constantly in this bad mood. We know that people who sleep more have better moods all the time.”

A big reason for this is that sleep impacts our ability to handle stress. A well-rested person is going to handle a crisis better than a tired one. “They just blow up, they’re quick in their thinking and they don’t think through problems very well,” Oexman says. “They overreact to negative situations. They have poor concentration, poor memory and poor mathematical skills. All those things we like to have in employees start to fall apart the minute we start decreasing the quantity of sleep.”

You’ll Be More Creative

You’ll Be More Creative

A rested mind is fertile ground for creative inspiration. When we lose sleep, says Oexman, the cognitive, problem-solving part of our brain suffers. So if you’re unable to come up with that next great idea or solve a problem that’s vexing the company, it might not be because of lack of skill but simply because your brain is too overworked to generate new ideas.

“As busy business people, accessing higher levels of cognitive functioning is one of those critical things that we have to do, but we don’t do it very well when we don’t sleep,” says Oexman. “ It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, as we take away sleep, our performance, our cognitive function and a lot of other things start to decline.”

Paul McCartney tells a story of the tune for “Yesterday” coming to him when he woke from sleep. Fortunately McCartney started playing that tune he heard in his head as soon as he woke up. Had he not, we might have never had one of the most popular songs of all time. So don’t rob the world of your potential sleep-induced genius — sleep, dream and get inspired.

You’ll Serve Your Clients Better

You’ll Serve Your Clients Better

When your doctor walks through the door and looks like he hasn’t slept in two days, how willing will you be to trust his judgment, as compared to the doctor who looks fresh and well-rested? Think about what your clients, employees and bosses are seeing when they look at you. Is exhaustion written all over your face, with dark circles and glassy eyes? Do you slouch at your desk? Are you energetic, or do you drag yourself through the day?

“Do I want a person who has been up for two whole nights making financial decisions for me?” asks Oexman. 

I realized that looking well-rested is just as important a part of your package as dressing appropriately or having proper manners. How you look and act is a huge part of the image you present to the world.

You’ll Win Your Employees’ Devotion

You’ll Win Your Employees’ Devotion

What if you gave your employees license to sleep more? What if you stopped sending urgent emails at 9pm? What if instead of encouraging workers to put in overtime, you supported them for leaving on time? Some companies, such as Google and The Huffington Post, even encourage midday naps for their employees. Support your employees’ need for sleep. You might see improvements not only to the general office mood, but to your bottom line.

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