How would you feel if the doctor about to operate on you, yawning, admitted he or she had had a terrible night’s sleep. Or knowing the pilot about to fly you on holiday or for work has just flown back-to-back flights in very demanding conditions and is shattered. You’re probably going to be a bit concerned. And yet, day in, day out far too many of us try and do things when we are sleep deprived. An executive with whom I work looked forward to 17 hours on a plane as it meant they would for the first time in ages get a break and a chance to rest. Seeing a long haul flight as an opportunity for recovery is, quite frankly, nuts.
Sleep deprivation is bad for you. There is nothing good about it and nothing to recommend it. There is some evidence that our ability to cope with sleep deprivation is in part genetically determined and whilst this means some people are better than others, the difference is not whether you will be affected but how badly and how quickly. Be under no illusions - sleep deprivation will affect you.
When talking about sleep deprivation, we’re not talking about days staying awake. It’s about the impact of something as simple as a long day. If you were to get up at 6am, by the time midnight comes round on the same day your reaction speed will have slowed, both short and long term memory will be affected. You’ll be poorer at making decisions, worse at thinking through things and you’ll have more difficulty staying focussed. Stay sleep deprived for long enough in your daily life and you’ll probably end up fatter, with higher blood pressure. Being sleep deprived carries with it the same level of risk as being intoxicated. Going without sleep for 24 hours, or having very limited sleep of just three or four hours per night for four or five days is the equivalent of being drunk.
If you drive sleep deprived you may well be breaking the law. In Sweden for example vehicles may not be driven by anyone who, because of illness or exhaustion is unable to drive safely. In the United States, some States include driving having not slept for 24 hours as reckless. You can expect a very long custodial sentence should you end up injuring or killing someone as a result of an accident attributable to sleep deprivation.
Whilst your ability to uptake oxygen is not affected by sleep deprivation, your perception of effort when sleep deprived will be. You may think you are working harder than you are. If you are tired, you are more likely to choose the easy way out. Rather than prepare proper meals, you’re likely to choose fast food options or to eat out / have a takeaway. This in turn can impact on your health and ability to perform optimally. Short term it may be the easy thing to do, but you will end up paying a price later. Sleep deprived people are not very good at taking on new information or responding to environmental demands.
With increased sleep deprivation your insulin response slows, as does the acute insulin response to glucose. Gherlin, a hormone that stimulates appetite increases and Leptin a hormone that inhibits appetite is decreased. You end up wanting to eat more and are less effective at storing energy. The net effect is that sleep deprived people eat more than they need and as a result are more likely to be overweight.
You are also using more energy when you are sleep deprived. One effect of this is that it leads to an antioxidant imbalance as a result of the increase and duration of cell activity. Short term, this helps you stay focused and perform, but over time, without the restorative benefit of sleep when the body reverses these antioxidant imbalances, they build up impacting brain function and also liver function. If you are sleep deprived, you will also experience a drop in core body temperature - which is why when you are tired you often feel cold. The body is less effective at thermoregulation.
In a work environment, under pressure to get lots done, the capacity to take on more information is already constrained in the busy manager. Add in sleep deprivation and their ability to make good decisions is hampered further. In addition, the choice of solution to problems will increasingly become the easy way out which may not be the right thing to do. With little or no time to stop and eat properly, the diet is already destroyed. Add in a desire to eat more because of the hormonal impact of sleep deprivation and food intake becomes excessive and poor quality. Over time body weight increases, there is no time or desire to exercise and even when it is attempted it feels harder than it should. Blood pressure increases. You can see where this is going.
Don’t underestimate the consequences of being sleep deprived on the world around you. The engineers at Chernobyl had been on shift for over 13 hours resulting in poor quality decisions that led to a tragic loss of life and an appalling environmental disaster. The supertanker Exxon Valdez that ran aground spewing forth vast amounts of crude oil into the seas on the Alaskan shore line, and the meltdown of the core at Three Mile Island nuclear facility were all attributed to sleep deprivation. In each situation, the people responsible were just doing their best - unfortunately, their best was disastrous because they were tired.
Mitigate the risk
Coffee, light, cat naps can all help, but they are just delaying the inevitable. The best way of mitigating the risk is to stop and sleep. There’s nothing smart, clever or macho about being sleep deprived. Imagine standing in court or at a tribunal trying to explain that the reason you made such a bad decision was ‘because you were tired’. It may be accurate, but it won’t be much comfort for those who were affected. We have a duty of care to ourselves and those around us to ensure we get the opportunity to be properly rested. In that way we can deliver best value.
By Dominic Irvine, founder of boutique leadership consultancy Epiphanies LLP