The Truth About Sleep

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

It’s not often that that the topic of sleep and employee performance makes me laugh out loud. But then I read this line by Harvard School of Medicine sleep medicine professor Charles A. Czeisler in a Harvard Business Review article:

“We would never say, ‘This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!’”

It’s not Last Comic Standing material, I grant you, but I laughed at the painful ridiculousness of the fact that we do routinely say, “That person is a great worker! She never sleeps!”

Twenty-four hours without sleep, or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night, impairs you as much as a blood alcohol level of .1%. If you chronically sacrifice sleep for work, you may as well knock back a six-pack or three while you’re on the job. Your performance can’t get much worse.

Research has shown time and time again that the ability to remember, learn, or be creative plummets when sleep suffers. Sleep isn’t just the time when our brain vacuums out useless information. It’s a complex function with at least four different stages that tend to our whole bodies. (Read more on the complexity of sleep.)

Long term, we risk depression, obesity, and heart disease with chronic sleep deprivation. Our immune systems break down. Day to day, we get moody, unpleasant, and unfriendly, and simply waste more time when we’re tired (particularly the day after daylight saving time starts).

Now zoom out to the bird’s-eye view. Nearly 50% of people worldwide report that they experience sleep deprivation. That’s half of us operating somewhere between zombie and Oscar the Grouch. Half of us slogging through the work day. Half of us unable to fight off the flu going around. Half of us driving on the highway or steering commuter trains.

Make Sleep Your Business

On a policy level, Czeisler recommends providing educational programs about sleep, health, and safety; screening for sleep disorders;  and training in sleep and fatigue management. He also encourages policies limiting scheduled work.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the work of Orfeo Buxton at Harvard, whose sleep research showed a correlation between supervisor support of work-life balance and the sleep habits of employees. Bottom line, we have the power to make our employees sleep better with a supportive culture, or correspondingly, lose sleep if we aren’t supportive. The impact—and risk—of not being supportive ultimately impacts business in terms of leave, productivity and absenteeism.

In response to a question about sleep and work in a piece in the NYT, Buxton says:

“We have evidence of multiple pathways by which the workplace impacts health and wellness. Management can either be a part of the problem, or be a part of long-term solutions. We need evidence-based solutions that both improve worker health and benefit employers.”

Get to Bed

Every stress management program starts with sleep. It doesn’t matter how much yoga you do or how much herbal tea you drink—your efforts aren’t worth much without a solid night’s sleep. The World Association of Sleep Medicine, which celebrated World Sleep Day on March 14, touts 10 commandments for adult sleep. If you’re anxious about giving up time for rest, console yourself with the fact that sleep is the cheapest improvement to your health you can find. (Read more on ways to encourage better sleep for yourself.)

(I happen to use the Jawbone tracker, which also monitors my sleep, and I often use that information to decide what I should or shouldn’t be doing the following day, based on the kind of sleep I had.)

Shakespeare called sleep the “chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Don’t consign yourself or your business to vending machine snacks. Snooze your way to the grand buffet of the well slept.