The professional world promotes sleep deprivation as the holy grail of achievement. If you’re too busy and too driven to sleep, you’re on your way to the top. The problem is that science says otherwise – so how do we escape this cultural pressure to put work ahead of sleep?
Perhaps the best logic, if we’re to change this dangerous behavior, is to reframe it as damaging, chosen behavior akin to binge drinking because you wouldn’t go to work drunk, yet so many of us aim to work on the edge of exhaustion. It’s time to step back and get to sleep, or else you carry panoply risks into the office with you.
Tired Brain, Drunk Brain: A Tale Of Two Similar Creatures
When we think about the common causes of car accidents, both drunk driving and drowsy driving are high on the list, but we typically think of drowsy driving as existing on the edge of sleep, a state in which you nod off at the wheel. And while this is sometimes the case, there are other ways to read into the dangers of drowsy driving – and drowsy working – that are much more insidious.
Sleep deprivation is categorized as getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night, a common level for American adults, especially those with high-stress jobs. Extensive neuroscience research, however, shows that when we suffer from chronic sleep deprivation we lose spatial awareness, struggle to make decisions, and have a slowed reaction time. Our brains are effectively drunk and we wouldn’t go to work in that state, yet day after day we show up to work as our worst selves.
Tired, Toxic Neurons
Continuing the unpleasant, yet honest metaphor of drunkenness, consider the way in which binge drinking fills your body with toxins. In order to clear out those toxins, we need to stop drinking alcohol, hydrate, and rest. The same is true of the brain – during the day, our brains fill with waste products, toxic proteins that slow down cell communication.
Sleep is the only time that our cells have the opportunity to clean out those toxins and when we don’t get enough, we turn up to work with our brains overflowing with junk. That can only lead to junk output and that’s not taking your career anywhere except down.
Erratic And Angry: The Alcoholic In The Office
One of the worst traits of heavy drinkers is their emotional volatility. They get angry or cry at the drop of a hat, instigate fights over small slights, and blame others for their own mistakes. Sleep deprived individuals are no different and that makes you a dreadful coworker and an even worse leader.
In one controlled study of newly assigned leader-follower pairs, the harms of sleep deprivation were seen to go in both directions. Followers perceived working relationships with sleep deprived leaders as poorer in quality than when both were well-rested, while leaders also had a low estimation of their relationships with sleep-deprived followers. Add to these interactions the fact that the sleep-deprived party has lowered emotional perception, and can’t detect negative interactions, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Besides harming your one-on-one relationships, sleep deprivation can also sap the very traits that made you a good leader in the first place. Workplace leaders are known for their charisma, for a kind of magnetism that makes people want to work for and with them. Sleep deprivation drags down those outstanding personality traits and leaves a robotic, difficult person in its place.
Sleep is a critical part of our well-being and without it, we turn into emotional, forgetful, disorganized people at work. We’re more likely to feel helpless and be unable to take initiative or change course when our plans go awry. It’s time we stop deifying sleep deprivation on the job. It’s not doing our bodies or our teams any favors.