ATD Blog

How Sleep Affects Performance — and What Companies Can Do

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Across an 85-year lifespan, an individual may sleep nearly 250,000 hours—or more than 10,000 full days. That sounds like a lot, but our research reveals significant sleep impairment in working adults. In fact, in a random sample of 1,326 workers, 35.7 percent said they “often” or “always” receive less sleep than required because of staying up too late or getting up too early.

Almost 22 percent reported being tired during the day because of poor-quality sleep (either falling asleep took too long or they are unable to stay asleep). Finally, slightly more than 8 percent reported missing an entire night or large proportion of sleep in the past month because of work or play activities.

Several studies, including one of our own, suggest that lack of sleep can bring out the worst in bosses, turning “lovable stars” into “competent jerks.” And a study by Jane Gaultney, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, explored weekend to weekday sleep differences in 379 business leaders, finding that leaders who had the biggest change in weekend to weeknight sleep quantity received significantly lower evaluations on their leadership effectiveness from colleagues and peers.

Another study by Christopher Barnes, associate professor at the University of Washington, and colleagues found that daily sleep quality—not quantity—directly influenced leaders’ self-control. Those who were sleep deprived were rated as significantly more abusive and toxic in interpersonal interactions.

Our own soon to be published research in Consulting Psychology: Practice and Research found that lack of sleep was significantly correlated with lower scores on a validated measure of emotional intelligence. Among the 104 senior leaders studied, peers and colleagues saw the sleep-deprived leaders as demonstrating “significantly less empathy, warmth, and interpersonal effectiveness” than those leaders reporting little or no sleep loss over a three-month period.


Employers should consider making a number of interventions to help improve employee wellbeing and help staff cope with todays wired and “always on” culture, which contributes to lack of sleep and serious fatigue deficits on the job. Each of these actions may have a tremendous return on investment in terms of both financial and performance outcomes:

  • Include sleep education and information within company-sponsored employee wellness and health promotion programs (for example, sleep hygiene and disorders).
  • Provide stress management programs (mindfulness, meditation, yoga) to enhance health and wellbeing.
  • Include a sleep diagnostic in company-sponsored health risk appraisals.
  • Revisit and revise policies around scheduling (such as rotating shift work schedules) to minimize sleepiness and fatigue.
  • Revisit and revise policies and expectations around the number of after-hours and holiday time emails and employee communications.
  • Offer quiet spaces and napping space for employees to catch up on sleep during their time at the office.
  • Include presenteeism, job stress, and workload metrics in annual engagement surveys, and explore meaningful interventions to address current issues and concerns.
  • Review and revise travel policies to encourage flexibility in schedules to maximize sleep and alertness (for example, start times for meetings and “red eye” flights).
  • Reward supervisors for fostering and reinforcing a recovery culture such as creating policies to limit communication after hours.

Want to learn more? Join me at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the session Sleep, Performance, and Interpersonal Effectiveness: Natural Bedfellows.


About the Author

Kenneth M. Nowack, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of Envisia Learning. He received his doctorate degree in counseling psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has published extensively in the areas of 360-degree feedback, assessment, health psychology, and behavioral medicine. Nowack serves on Daniel Goleman’s Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations and serves as editor-in-chief for the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 13; Society of Consulting Psychology).

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