By Stefan Gingerich, senior research analyst
Whether you’re a chef oversalting a soufflé or a pharmacist counting out too many pills, sleep deprivation can lead to mistakes ranging from basic to even dangerous.
In our busy world, we may push back bedtime to cram in more work, kids’ activities, or TV binge-watching (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Just 27% of Americans get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. And our research shows that employees who sleep 5 hours a night (compared to 8 hours) miss 1.5 times more workdays due to illness.
When those sleep-deprived employees do show up to work, they may be more than just groggy and less productive. They may be mistake-prone. New research—one of the largest sleep-deprivation studies ever—shows that sleep-deprived people are about twice as likely to make mistakes. Said another way, about half of the errors a sleep-deprived person makes are very much avoidable and due to poor sleep habits.
Losing sleep can mess with memory
Study participants came to a sleep lab at 10 p.m. for the 24-hour study. They were asked to complete a series of tasks, in a specific order. They were pretty simple tasks, like determining if a letter was underlined or italicized, above or below a box, and in red or yellow type. Interrupted at random times, they had to remember where they were in the sequence of tasks so they could pick up where they had left off. The tasks were designed to replicate the cognitive skills required to complete office work such as entering data or approving timecards.
At midnight, half of the participants went home to sleep while the other half stayed awake in the lab. Before the groups split up, it’s important to understand that the group that stayed at the lab had made the same number of mistakes as the group that went home to sleep. The next morning, everyone completed the tasks again—and the results were much different.
A good night's sleep may mean a good day's work
This time, 15% of the sleep-deprived participants failed at the task. They simply couldn’t do it with the required level of accuracy. Compare that to only a 1% failure rate of those who had gotten a good night’s sleep. Among those who were able to complete the task, the error rate was between 20% and 33% for the sleep-deprived group and about 12% to 15% for the group who slept well. All in all, the sleep-deprived group made about twice as many errors.
We’ve heard of sleep-deprivation mistakes made in hospitals, on assembly lines, or even at nuclear power plants. These can be tragic or catastrophic errors that understandably get a great deal of attention. But this study shows sleep deprivation can affect anyone whose role requires thinking, reasoning, and memory. Consider an accounting firm, with accountants feverishly working overtime as the clock winds down to tax day. How many of them aren’t getting enough sleep—and making avoidable errors in their calculations?
For your employees, sleep shouldn’t be viewed as downtime or a necessary evil that eats into productivity. Instead, it should be viewed as hugely beneficial, a time when the body is restoring itself, leading to better physical and mental health. Here are some easy ways for your employees (and you) to improve your sleep.
5 tips for better sleep at night
- Set a sleep schedule and stick to it, even on weekends
- Say no to napping, especially in the afternoon, if you have trouble sleeping
- Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room (try blackout curtains or a white noise machine)
- Manage your body clock by increasing daytime exposure to bright light and avoiding blue light (like TV and phone screens) in the evening
- Create a bedtime wind-down ritual with a calming activity like reading or meditation
Give your employees tools they need to rise and shine. See how our StayWell Platform provides digital learning modules to help employees understand more about managing stress for improved sleep.