The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Work Performance

Busy professionals experience many pressures that impede their ability to obtain optimal amounts of sleep. Working according to shift patterns, working across different time zones simultaneously and international travel¹ are all common causes of sleep loss. In addition, the use of artificial lighting and hand-held technologies at night², ever increasing pressure to perform (and to be ‘seen’ to perform) and the lengthening of the working day all make the challenge of getting optimal sleep more difficult for employees.

In this guest post, Professor Vicki Culpin, a professor at Hult International Business School shares her recent research findings on the influence of sleep quality on work life.

Traditionally, organizations seeking to enhance their effectiveness have focused on developing their leadership capabilities, strategically managing their talent pipeline, increasing employee engagement and motivation and streamlining their operations. However, there is now a significant body of evidence to suggest that poor sleep (both quality and quantity) can affect individuals in a range of ways pertinent to organizational success. Given the increasing cognitive and physical demands on individuals within a now VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) organizational world, having a workforce that participates in working life fully, is of paramount importance. It could be argued, therefore, that those organizations which are willing to engage with, and address the issue of poor sleep within an individual and organizational culture context, will be at a competitive advantage.

Our research provides an opportunity to, firstly, understand whether working professionals are really suffering from a ‘sleep debt’, and secondly to gain an insight into how this sleep loss manifests itself within an organizational context.

Research objectives:

The study, which builds upon previous Ashridge³ research into the sleep patterns of managers, asked the following questions:

  1. How much sleep are professionals getting on average per night?

  2. Does this quality and quantity change with seniority and with age?

  3. How does sleep loss affect working populations in relation to:

    • Work performance?

    • Social and emotional life?

    • Physical health?

  1. Does this change with seniority and/ or age?

Research findings:

Quality and quantity of sleep

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine⁴ recent research states that the minimum number of hours of sleep required for a healthy adult is 7, (with a recommended range between 7 to 9 hours) yet those individuals who took part in the survey achieved an average of only 6 hours 28 minutes. The most senior individuals, those holding CEO, chair and senior manager level positions, slept on average for only 6 hours 20 minutes per night, with more junior colleagues (middle managers, professional specialists, front line managers and those with no management responsibility) managing an extra 10 minutes in bed (6 hours 30 minutes). Whilst more senior leaders did sleep for less time than their junior colleagues, the difference is smaller than one might expect, and both groups, regardless of seniority, were sleeping less than the recommended daily amount for a healthy adult.

Looking at the amount of sleep reported across the different age categories, the trend is much clearer, with individuals aged 20-34 years reporting the highest amount of sleep (6 hours 47 minutes), those aged 35-49 years averaging at 6 hours 24 minutes, and those aged 50+ years getting the least amount of sleep (6 hours 19 minutes).

Affects of sleep loss on work performance

Many of the working professionals who completed this survey reported that they were affected by sleep loss, particularly when engaged in tasks that required sustained attention. From the 30 aspects of cognitive behavior assessed in the research, the results indicate that the executive control functions of decision-making, creativity, processing, adaptability, learning and control of emotions, performed by the pre-frontal cortex within the brain, are all highly impacted by sleep loss.

Generational and seniority differences in the effect of poor sleep

Interestingly, workers over 50 years old reported getting less sleep than younger colleagues, they also consistently reported that sleep affected their work performance, physical health and social and emotional life substantially less than younger workers. In addition, workers who were more senior in the organization with senior management responsibilities, also reported that their professional performance, physical health and emotional and social wellbeing were affected less than those lower down in the organizational hierarchy.

Business impact of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation appears to be an increasing characteristic of today’s working environment for professionals across organizations. This research further highlights the need to challenge a corporate culture of sleeplessness. The most important actions that can be taken are to raise awareness, communicate the challenges of sleep deprivation and bring discussions on sleep into the open.

It is common for managers and colleagues to look at a lack of focus or motivation, irritability and bad decision-making as being caused by poor training, organizational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep. This report is a call to action and provides an opportunity for individuals, those responsible for developing others and organizations to both understand the ways that sleep loss affects employees, and to begin to address them to enhance individual and organizational longevity and success.

This infographic, based on a sleep study undertaken by Hult International Business School, highlights the dangers that lack of sleep can have on employees work performance. 

Sleep Deprivation at Work Infographic


¹ Sack, R., Auckley, D., Auger, R., Carskadon, M., Wright, K., Vitiello, M. and Zhdanova, I. (2007) Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: Part 1, Basic principles, shift work and jetleg disorders. Sleep, 30,1460-1483.
² Lanaj, K., Johnson, R. and Barnes, C. (2014) Beginning the working day yet already depleted? Consequences of late-night smartphone use and sleep. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 124, 11-23.
³ Culpin, V. and Whelan, A. (2009) The wake-up call for sleepy managers. 360° The Ashridge Journal, Spring, 27-30.
⁴ Watson, N., Badr, M., Belenky, G., Bliwise, D., Buxton, O., Buysse, D., Dinges, D., Gangwisch, J., Grandner, M., Kushida, C., Malhotra, R., Martin, J., Patel, S., Quan, S. and Tasali, E. (2015) Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: A joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Sleep, 38, 843-844.

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  2. Caroline Polk Reply

    Wow, this article really needs a copy edit. Mixing up affect and effect is basic and reflects poorly on the CDC. I guess you can’t expect this administration to care about such things.

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  6. Wendy Martin Reply

    Traditionally, organizations seeking to enhance their effectiveness have focused on developing their leadership capabilities, strategically managing their talent pipeline, increasing employee engagement and motivation and streamlining their operations.

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