Sleep – the Hidden Performance Factor

We’re always told we should make sure we get plenty of sleep in order to work at optimum efficiency. Yet in the age of snatched lunches and 24/7 emails and text messages, the conditions for a full night’s sleep are increasingly under threat.

One unfortunate factor of sleeplessness is that our critical faculties are centred in the cortex (left-brain), which our body prioritises as last in the queue for glucose  –  the essential fuel for our performance. And many of us, even quite junior staff, are now required to perform not just mechanical tasks  but also those that are interpretive or cognitive.

Deprived of sleep, we have more difficulty summoning our critical or creative resources (and remember, to be creative, we have to be critical  –  strictly evaluating that exciting idea we’ve just thought of.) We are then liable to rely merely on routine solutions that are suitable only for superficial examination of a problem or brief, and not for in-depth study. Some new research from Duke University suggests that the effects may even be more pronounced. It seems that the sleep-deprived brain may replicate old  decision-paths without noting whether those resulted in a good or bad decision. So you could end up repeating a previous decision that actually led to a poor result.


I once worked for a major supplier of credit-card, scanning software, whose CEO, called Douglas, had made a thorough study of the effects of sleep deprivation at work. He understood the subject so well that he could recognise early signs of sleeplessness in his staff, and would offer helpful solutions, usually involving diet and exercise. It was remarkable how willingly they took his advice, and his department was nearly always ranked as No.1 for performance and staff satisfaction.

Like those employees, I developed a high respect for Douglas. But I did find him to be quite a secretive man. Even after several years, I never felt I really knew him. But he seemed to possess a particular quality that I had come across in the prisoners-of-war I once counselled in Serbia, and I had an idea that at some point, he must have come through a similar experience.

Then one day, while we were stuck in a bad traffic-jam, he unexpectedly confided to me about the moment, early in his career, that had caused him to study sleep-deprivation so seriously. I must say that it was just about the opposite from what I had expected.

He told me he had been one of a group of three young railwaymen, who were always lounging around the clubs late in the evening, and were often reprimanded for not getting enough sleep. One night, Douglas had encouraged one of his friends, a train-driver, to stay out into the small hours, when he was due to drive an express the next morning. Sure enough, during the morning rush-hour, that driver misread one of the signals at a main junction  –  although fortunately the emergency brakes came on, just in time to avoid a serious crash.

Douglas really took this to heart, when he thought of how much worse it could have been.  He said he felt like a murderer, and experienced many recurring nightmares about it. But not surprisingly, his own attitude to work changed overnight.

So that was how Douglas discovered a new purpose in life and became a highly-respected manager. And of course, he treated sleep deprivation as his special mission within his department – with the impressive results we all witnessed.

Key points about sleep

  • Today’s work culture tends to upset our natural sleep-patterns
  • Our brain’s cognitive faculty is at risk from glucose deprivation
  • Sleeplessness at work should be a formal managerial study

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[Reprinted with the kind permission of Gulf News]

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