By Christopher M. Barnes/Harvard Business Review
We have all heard the advice: sleep more. I have given out this advice myself, based on strong empirically-backed science, which indicates that people are worse employees when they’re sleep-deprived — even leaders and even entrepreneurs.
Getting more sleep is clearly sound advice, but let’s face it: it’s not always possible to follow it. There will be plenty of days when you work after getting an insufficient amount of sleep, or perhaps a night of poor-quality sleep. When that inevitably happens, what should you do to get through the day?
Let’s start with the most obvious and most common remedy for this situation: caffeine. Caffeine is among the most heavily-used drugs in the working world. Its omnipresence not only suggests that chronic sleep deprivation drives people to use caffeine, but that there’s at least some optimism that caffeine will solve the problem. This is not entirely unfounded: consuming caffeine can at least partially offset many of the effects of sleep deprivation on performance in the short term.
However, caffeine consumption is not a great long-term solution, given that it generally masks the effects of sleep deprivation instead of leading to the more fundamental restoration which occurs during sleep. Moreover, caffeine will typically interfere with your ability to sleep for several hours after you consume it, potentially causing more sleep deprivation the next day. Thus, caffeine is best used strategically, and reserved for only the most dire of circumstances.
The next most obvious solution is one that is difficult to implement: knowing when to call it a day. Working while sleep deprived leaves people cognitively impaired, and thus more likely to make mistakes and produce work that is of lower quality. Moreover, leaders who work while sleep deprived can harm work outcomes for their entire workgroup. Given this evidence, it’s possible that the problems you’ll cause from working while sleepy may destroy more value than you actually create from working those additional hours. So waiting to work until you have had more rest might be the best possible decision. And if you can’t get all the sleep you need, at least try to take a nap. Even a short 20-minute rest can make a meaningful difference in your effectiveness for the rest of the day.
You may be in a situation where it isn’t feasible to wait to continue working until you are better rested, however. In this case, the next best idea is to strategize which tasks you will engage in while sleep-deprived. Research indicates that sleep deprivation is most harmful to novel tasks, or those which require creativity and innovation. In contrast, tasks which are routine and which require no creativity are less vulnerable to the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Indeed, the phrase “I could do that in my sleep” is a handy concept to help you decide which tasks you should tackle and when. Similarly, because of the elevated risk of errors inherent in working while sleep-deprived, your sleepy self should try to avoid high-consequence tasks. Save them for your rested self.
Another helpful strategy for minimizing the potential detrimental effects of sleep deprivation is to move beyond your own brain. If your impaired sleepy brain is the weak link, look for ways to rely more heavily on other links. This may involve delegating more when you are sleep deprived than when you are rested (bonus points for delegating tasks which are especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation). Perhaps your sleepy self can rely more heavily on the advice of colleagues, mentors, or subject matter experts. Some jobs include decision support systems (often operating through machine learning); those systems may be especially handy when you are impaired due to sleep deprivation.
You can also elicit outside views through crowdsourcing; some people in the crowd will probably also be sleep deprived, but the mean amount of sleep may be notably higher than yours that day. If there is no way to lean more heavily on others in the moment, solicit informal audits of your work after the fact to at least try to catch any mistakes you made before they snowball into major problems. (And if you can’t recruit someone to help, check over your own work on a day when you’re feeling more rested.)
A powerful long-term solution that draws from these ideas is highlighted nicely in nature. Dolphins face an interesting quandary: they live in the water, but they must breathe air to survive. This means that dolphins must always be swimming — and swimming would seem to be incompatible with sleeping. Their solution to this quandary is to sleep half of their brain at a time, with the other half in a wakeful state that allows them to continue swimming and breathing.
A human obviously cannot implement this solution. But a team can. A team can rest some members while others are working, and then rotate the team members so that there are always fresh people working on the task. This may seem unrealistic, but it is implemented regularly with air crews operating on international flights or among doctors and nurses in hospitals.
Take the example of nap rooms or nap pods that can enable team members to take breaks in order to sleep and recharge while others are working. This infrastructure has a secondary benefit of signaling the value of sleep. However, the risk of nap-focused infrastructure is that it could potentially enable a culture in which long work hours punctuated by short naps becomes seen as normal. Thus, it’s vital to send the right message, both verbally and through action, to ensure that nap infrastructure becomes a tool for rest rather than a tool for increasing work pressure.
Overall, we all know we need to be sleeping more. For the sake of your health and your effectiveness at work, I hope that you will. But when you can’t, you still have a few tricks up your sleeve to try to mitigate the risks involved in working while sleepy. Managing these risks is far better than the alternative of mindlessly stumbling through the minefield of working while sleep-deprived.
(Christopher M. Barnes is an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. He worked in the Fatigue Countermeasures branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory before pursuing his PhD in Organizational Behavior at Michigan State University.) Photo: Getty images