Body at Work, Brain at Home?

What would you do if  your CFO came drunk to board meeting? Coming to work after only 4 hours of sleep is no different, may be even worse as the impairment is less obvious.  Abnormal sleepiness costs US corporations at least 100 billion dollars every year in lost productivity, medical expenses, sick leave, and property and environmental damage. The staggering cost of sleep deprivation also includes such things as oil spills, plane crashes, and automobile accidents where the lack of sleep was a factor. And they include less visible costs associated with mortality, morbidity, performance, other forms of accidents and injuries, quality of life, family well-being, and health care utilization.

Work place drowsiness is less obvious than this but equally disastrous.

How common is work place drowsiness? In 2008, the National Sleep Foundation surveyed a thousand employees, and there were startling and alarming results:

  • 36 percent admitted to having nodded off or fallen asleep while driving.
  • 29 percent said they had fallen asleep or become very sleepy at work.
  • 12 percent confessed to researchers that they had been late to work because of sleepiness.

What is the medical evidence? The prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe, is the most active area of the brain in rested individuals. However, in sleep-deprived people, this part of the brain nearly shuts down. The majority of the deficits created because of this persist despite strong motivation. The prefrontal cortex governs executive function, which includes our ability to:

  • Make sound decisions
  • Predict the consequences of our actions
  • Remain goal-oriented
  • Conduct ourselves in a socially acceptable manner, that is, control our urges so as to avoid behavior that is unacceptable or even illegal
  • Plan, discriminate, make decisions, direct and sustain attention while ignoring distractions, and initiate goal-directed behavior
  • Have flexible and innovative thinking and decision making in response to novel and unexpected information and events
  • Integrate emotions and cognition to help resolve ethical dilemma

In general, sleep loss results in:

  • Lapsing, cognitive slowing, memory impairment, and reduced vigilance
  • Change in mood and motivation, failure to complete routines, slower responses, physical exertion, and bickering
  • Increased reaction time and decreased vigilance and attention
  • Impaired working memory, verbal fluency, logical reasoning, decision making, and judgment
  • Decrements in innovative, flexible thinking and strategic planning
  • Increased perseveration (trying failed solutions repeatedly) and lack of flexibility
  • Inability to focus on greater good and resultant indecisiveness when faced with an ethical dilemma
  • Inability to set ambitious goals
  • Diminished problem solving abilities
  • Severely diminished ability to manage information
  • Reactive instead of proactive response
  • Diminished verbal fluency and communication skills
  • Emotional agnosia (inability to recognize and manage emotions)
  • Impaired mood, cognition, and psychomotor vigilance (makes you grumpy, foggy, and clumsy)

Because of the effect of sleep deprivation on the prefrontal cortex, sleep-deprived leaders lack the speed and creative resources to make quick, logical decisions and implement them well. These same studies indicate that a sleep-deprived person lacks the ability to consider multiple tasks simultaneously, which reduces the speed and efficiency of one’s actions.

What can you do?
  • Lead by example. Guard your sleep with same tenacity you guard your bottom line as both are intricately tied together.
  • Promote 7-8 hours of sound sleep in your department, and in your company.
  • Maintain regular sleep-wake schedule even on weekends.
  • Get 30 minutes of exercise every day.
  • Avoid caffeine certainly after 1 PM.
  • Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Keep bedroom cool, quiet, and dark.
  • Keep laptop, Smartphone, and work related material out of bedroom.
  • Pray before going to bed.
  • Request referral to a sleep physician if your colleague has excessive sleepiness.
Remember, suboptimal alertness leads to suboptimal leadership.
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