Sleep and productivity might seem at odds with each other. In some fields, people even boast about their crazy hours or how little sleep they get.
But that kind of thinking is misguided.
Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make clear that our collective lack of sleep is dangerous to both our health and our productivity. When we don’t get enough sleep, our judgment and our ability to perform daily tasks suffer. We’re not as good at problem solving or executing plans, and we’re prone to making errors in our work. Just last month, McKinsey & Company, a leading global management consulting firm, declared that sleep deprivation requires “specific and urgent attention” from companies. As McKinsey points out, a lack of sleep most affects the part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that’s responsible for the higher-order mental skills that leadership requires.
As a knowledge worker, your success depends on giving your brain what it needs to deliver the know-how and creativity you were hired to provide. And if you lead other knowledge workers, part of your role is supporting the habits that help them produce their best results.
Bottom line: We all have to take the relationship between sleep and productivity more seriously.
A good way to start fighting the harm of sleep deprivation is embracing the idea of napping at work.
That’s what many successful, forward-thinking companies are already doing. HubSpot, Zappos and Nike offer nap rooms for employees. At Google and Huffington Post/AOL, employees can grab a few winks in Energy Pods, reclining capsule chairs designed for naps at work. Science supports these pro-napping practices: studies show that a quick nap can increase alertness, improve learning and memory, increase creativity, boost productivity, improve mood and decrease stress.
If you’re a leader, encouraging your team to enjoy a little shut-eye when they can will lead to more productivity than pushing them to fill every minute with activity. Spread the word that napping is acceptable (and encouraged!) and that it’s a lot more effective than the sugar- or caffeine-loading habits that are ingrained in so many office cultures. If that seems a little crazy to you, consider that a smoking break is still acceptable in most professional settings—now does a nap break still seem crazy? McKinsey even recommends providing training on sleep habits and other well-being topics.
Back up these messages with action. However much you promote napping, employees may not feel comfortable catching a few zzz’s during their workdays until they know that leadership takes nap breaks too. If possible, you could also promote napping by designating an area for it. Is there (for example) an unused office where you could set up a couch?
Leaders also get a bonus benefit from promoting naps: It shows that they care about the well-being of their colleagues, which helps build trusting relationships. And relationship-building is one of the key qualities of successful executives, according to research reported at HBR.org.
Even if you can’t influence your office to adopt a napping culture, you can still look for ways to work a nap into your day. If you work at home, you’re all set! If you have an office, close the door and put your head down on your desk. No office? Maybe you can retreat to your car for a few minutes. Is there a grassy area near your office? Bring a blanket to work and close your eyes outside when the weather permits. Silence your devices so that no calls or email alerts disrupt your time to refresh, and set a timer for 10-20 minutes or so. Napping longer than 30 minutes at work isn’t a good idea because you’re more likely to enter REM sleep and feel groggy when you wake up. Even if you can’t fall asleep during your nap time, you’ll still reap some productivity benefits just from pausing and quieting your mind; resting is almost as good as sleeping. After all, getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to manage workplace stress.
Consider the relationship between sleep and productivity in your own life. If possible, experiment with napping at work this week. Pay attention to how a nap affects your abilities to concentrate, solve problems, learn new things, make decisions and relate to others. Then tell me about what you noticed – whether in the comments here or on Facebook or Twitter.