The Productivity Paradox

The Productivity Paradox
Sergey Mironov/
Summary: Sleeping has a huge impact on productivity, engagement, and motivation, both in and outside of work. So imagine its impact on learning...

Productivity And Sleep: Why Sleeping Beauty Gets More Done

Research shows that 1 in 3 Brits suffer from insomnia, leading to 200,000 lost working days and costing the UK economy £30 billion per year. The Sleep Charity estimates this figure to be even higher at £40.2 billion, factoring in productivity loss too. This problem is expected to increase to £47 billion by 2030. Comparisons with similar economies reveal that 1.86% of the UK’s GDP is lost due to insufficient sleep, which is lower than the US and Japan but higher than Canada and Germany, illustrating the problem further.

The NHS recommends adults should get eight hours of sleep per night, but few UK adults achieve this, with the average UK adult getting just 6 hours and 20 minutes of sleep. Just 6% sleep for the recommended 8 hours. This article will first demonstrate the impact of sleep, or a lack thereof, on the human body and mind to contextualize the problem. Then, it will discuss what is theorized to be causing poor sleep and how this plays out in the context of organizations.

Sleep And The Human Body

Sleeping allows the human body to recover from the day which includes working to support healthy brain function. Essentially, sleep helps your body prepare your brain for the following day and it forms new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Studies have therefore shown that a good night’s sleep improves learning, decision-making, creativity, problem-solving skills, and attention. Long-term sleep deficiency has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior. Even just losing an hour or two of sleep a night, after several nights a human’s ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all. Evidently, poor sleep has a detrimental impact on cognitive function and mental health. Physically, good quality sleep can:

  • Heal and repair your heart and blood vessels.
  • Help support a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin).
  • Improves your body’s ability to react to insulin.
  • Supports healthy growth and development.
  • Impacts your body’s ability to fight germs and sickness.
  • Decreases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and strokes.

Given the vast impact sleep deprivation can have on the body and mind, it’s unsurprising that Rand Corporation found those who sleep fewer than six hours a night on average have a 13% higher mortality risk than those who sleep at least seven.

Causes For Poor Sleep

Before organizations can attempt to address the problem of sleep deprivation, first one must understand what’s actually causing these issues. When asking the population, the following themes emerged:

  • 25% of adults in the UK cite money worries as negatively impacting their sleep.
  • 37% cited work as reducing the amount of control they feel they have over their sleep.

It’s important to acknowledge, however, that there are many other environmental factors in our modern society that could be contributing to or worsening existing sleep problems. Most pertinently, blue light infamously affects sleep inhibiting the production of the hormone melatonin (which tells the body it’s tired), thus reducing both the quantity and quality of sleep. Blue light can come from various sources but primarily impacts sleep through screens which is why experts recommend that one should stop using their mobile at least 30 minutes prior to bed.

Moreover, lifestyle choices like eating late at night, consuming caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol around bedtime, and vigorous exercise late at night can all prevent or delay sleep too. Finally, anything affecting someone’s ability to relax can adversely impact sleep, for example, if someone is grappling with a major life event or is anxious about something. Moreover, increased stress levels are also a byproduct of poor sleep. This can become a vicious cycle where one cannot sleep due to stress and then becomes more stressed due to the inability to sleep.

Poor Sleep And Organizations: Addressing Productivity

1. Alertness And Focus

Firstly, sleep deprivation has a major impact on alertness and focus. A good night’s sleep helps humans feel more alert and stay more focused throughout the day leading to increased productivity and better decision-making. Just one night of insufficient sleep can reduce cognitive performance by as much as 25%. Prolonged sleep loss is so serious it’s often likened to alcohol impairment—19 hours of sustained wakefulness has been found to be the equivalent of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. For context, in Scotland, it’s illegal to drive under the influence of that much alcohol with England sitting just above at 0.08%.

Clearly, sleep has a detrimental impact on one’s ability to focus, supported by evidence demonstrating that 16% of all car accidents in the UK are sleep-related. In an organizational context, a study published found workers who reported poor sleep had more trouble staying alert and focused during the day, unsurprisingly leading to decreased productivity.

2. Memory And Learning

Sleep arguably has the most significant impact on memory and learning because it plays a critical role in memory consolidation, which is essential for retaining new information. Simply put, when a human doesn’t get enough sleep they will have difficulty remembering important details or learning new skills. The University of York found that participants who slept for eight hours performed significantly better on memory tests than those who slept just four hours. As Dr. Michael Chee stated, "Sleep is not a passive state, but an active process that plays a key role in memory consolidation and the formation of new memories."

As discussed above, sleep deprivation can mirror the symptoms of being drunk, meaning thinking is slowed as well as reaction times. Poor sleep can alter memory retention and recall by between 20-40%. Recent research has gone further defining poor sleep as when someone does not enter a REM cycle; the hypothesis is that REM sleep is especially important for this element of cognitive ability. Essentially, one’s sleep must be deep enough to reach this stage to improve learning retention meaning both quantity and quality are important.

The recognition of the benefits of sleep for memory recall is not a new concept. It’s one that’s been present in psychology for thousands of years with first-century AD Rheotician Quintilian stating, "It is a curious fact, of which the reason is not obvious that the interval of a single night will greatly increase the strength of the memory."

3. Mood And Stress Levels

A lack of sleep can be caused by stress, but also increase stress. The University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. Comparatively, when the subjects resumed normal sleep a dramatic mood improvement was recorded across the board. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that psychologists have found a significant relationship between poor sleep and psychological problems, with 15-20% of those diagnosed with insomnia developing major depression.

Increased stress levels and negative moods have an obvious impact on one’s ability to perform in a corporate context and if poor sleep develops into insomnia this impact is even greater. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that poor sleep quality was associated with increased stress levels and negative mood. However, as stress can cause poor sleep it can become similar to a chicken or egg debate trying to establish which came first. Either way, though, the impact stress has on productivity is well-researched having a "long-term economic impact" with 30% of the UK currently claiming they have high levels of workplace stress according to the Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitudes Survey.


In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to overlook the importance of sleep when it comes to our productivity at work. However, the evidence is clear—getting eight hours of high-quality sleep is essential for alertness and focus, memory and learning, and stress. Given the majority of UK adults are not getting enough sleep and the vast impact it has on productivity at work, organizations’ financial performance, and resultantly, the UK’s economy, action must be taken.

But how can you ensure your workforce isn’t suffering from poor sleep or insomnia? Well, unfortunately, you can’t set a strict bedtime, read them a bedtime story, and tuck them in. But what you can do is support your people to make their own informed choices. The majority of the UK recognizes the importance of sleep over leisure, so sharing information regarding what disrupts sleep, integrating work-life balance into the culture, and hybrid/flexible working arrangements can all be used to help.

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