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Why Skimping on Sleep Is a Major Career Mistake

Apr 20, 2017 By Jeanne
sleep and career

Sleep Deprivation and Your Work

There are a number of questions that an interviewer typically asks a potential candidate for a position.

  • “What relevant experience do you have?”
  • “Do you work better collaboratively or on your own?”
  • “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?’

An increasing amount of data indicates that it would behoove hiring managers to add another question to their standard list: how well do you sleep?

At first glance, it may not seem as relevant as a question about their skill set or a gap in their resume. But when it comes to the quality of work that employers can expect day in and day out, sleep quality matters. A lot.

We’ve already written about how high-quality sleep can fuel your career success. So if the potential work benefits of great shut-eye didn’t inspire you to step up your sleep game, we’re here now to discuss the inverse. Because the negative effects of sleep deprivation on your work life should make bedtime the most important agenda item of your day.

A Recipe for Disaster

On the extreme end of things, the consequences of sleep deprivation can be seen in the nuclear disasters at both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Sleep deprivation also contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident, as well as the explosion of the Challenger. A 2004 report also showed that sleep deprivation plays a significant role in medical errors. However, lives need not be at stake for poor sleep to wreak serious havoc on your work life.

You Make Poor Decisions

When you’re sleep-deprived, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t work well, which impairs a whole host of complex functions. Chief among them is the ability to make decisions. According to one study, sleep deprivation “impairs decision-making involving the unexpected, innovation, revising plans, competing distraction, and effective communication.” Yikes. That means it’s harder to make decisions in general, and nearly impossible to make quick decisions when things don’t go exactly as planned (which, let’s be real, they rarely do).

There are no jobs that don’t require decision-making, whether it’s about who to delegate responsibility to, which marketing strategy to choose, or what product features to add. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that our work lives are just a series of decisions large and small. Which means that if you’re not well rested, it will affect every minute of your workday.

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You Can’t Focus

Part of the impaired ability to make decisions likely has to do with the fact that it’s a lot harder to focus when you’re sleep-deprived (after all, how can you make a choice when you can’t concentrate long enough to consider the options?). This lack of focus also means that it takes a heck of a lot longer to complete tasks, destroying your workday productivity. So working longer and sleeping less is a bad strategy for productivity.

 You’re Bad with Numbers

After a poor night’s rest, don’t expect to be a stellar—or even decent—number cruncher. In one study, subjects who had gone 35 hours without sleep performed significantly worse than their well-rested counterparts on arithmetic problems and had much less brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. And this one doesn’t just apply to mathematicians! Quantitative thinking plays a role in most jobs, whether it’s reviewing financial numbers, analyzing marketing statistics, handling payroll and expense reports or managing inventory. And so on.

You Can’t Read People

The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for moderating social behavior. When this part of your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, you’re less able to make jokes or appreciate humor. You also have a harder time reading other’s emotions. Since humor is an essential element of career success, this is a big down side – not to mention the fact that you may inadvertently ruffle a few feathers by misinterpreting what Heather really means when she says, “Sure, I don’t have a problem with you taking over that project.

You’re Grouchier

After you’ve stepped in it with Heather, you’ll have a hard time smoothing things over, since sleep deprivation makes you markedly worse at conflict resolution. In fact, you’re more likely to exacerbate the situation, as those who are sleep-deprived are more inclined to bicker and express negativity.

This also means that you’ll probably have a bad attitude overall – which certainly isn’t going to help you climb the ladder. Rather than tackling new projects with energy and enthusiasm, when you haven’t slept well, you’re far more likely to see a task as a burden and grumble your way through.

You Take More Sick Days

One of the physical side effects of sleep deprivation is that it does a number on your immune system. This, of course, means that you’re more susceptible to catching a cold or worse, keeping you out of the office. And while we all get sick from time to time, racking up sick days is certainly not the way to career success.

 The workday equivalent of Catch 22

What’s most ironic about all of this is that work, more often than not, is one of the main contributors to sleep deprivation. Whether it’s late nights, early mornings, or workplace stress making you toss and turn, your office life can follow you to your bed. In fact, a study by the National Sleep Foundation suggested that a lack of workday productivity caused by sleep deprivation led people to continue to do work at home at night. This led to further sleep deprivation, thus creating a vicious cycle.

It can be a tricky dynamic to navigate, but what’s important to remember is that, no matter how much pressure you feel to stay up and get to inbox zero, you’ll be a much more valuable employee the next day—and much more pleasant coworker—if you click shut down and get some shut-eye.

The new path to success?

Work hard, play hard. It’s part of the American lexicon and embedded in our collective conscience. But if you want to get ahead, it’s becoming increasingly clear that you should also sleep hard. We suggest you start tonight.