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Why Sleep Matters in Knowledge Work

Not getting enough sleep can torpedo daily job performance for knowledge workers. This is because, for knowledge workers, successful job performance typically requires three different types of acuity and intelligence--mental, emotional, and interpersonal--and these are all faculties most quickly and severely sabotaged by sleep debt.
Reviewed by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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High sleep debt negatively impacts both the productivity and quality components of work performance, and can also affect working relationships. (Sleep debt, fyi, is defined as the amount of sleep we owe our bodies, relative to our individual sleep need, calculated over roughly the last two weeks.) When employees aren’t meeting their sleep need, they have difficulty focusing (meaning pure volume of work decreases), retaining new information (so training and new skill building are unproductive), and communicating effectively. Lapses in attention increase, and creative problem-solving takes a hit. Sleep-deprived employees are also less empathetic and more impatient, and so can be emotionally reactive in their interactions with colleagues and customers, straining workplace and revenue relationships.

Zooming out a bit further, the aggregate effects of team-wide sleep debt are even more staggering. When your teams are chronically underslept, they’re going to be more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and more likely to experience job dissatisfaction--a recipe for team-wide burnout and, in the worst cases, high employee churn. 

As a final point--business leaders themselves are in no way immune to the ill-effects of sleep debt. Not only does a leader set the tone for their team (research shows that if your employees see you devaluing your own sleep, no one on the team will feel comfortable prioritizing theirs), but sleep deprivation diminishes leadership capabilities, as well--things like the ability to reason effectively, decisiveness, and the aptitude for coming up with and executing new ideas. And--perhaps the most pernicious of all--studies have determined that when leaders are underslept, they lose their edge when it comes to relating to, supporting, and inspiring others

Because effective knowledge work is so reliant on humans and humans are so reliant on sleep, the equation is straight forward: any other investment you make in your team (new technologies, tools, training, etc.) is like pouring water into a leaky bucket when your employees are carrying substantial sleep debt.

Unlearning what we think we know about sleep

We often get the question: if sleep is so important to workplace performance, why am I only hearing about it now? It’s a great question, and we’ve spent a lot of time teasing it out. Ultimately we believe there are several key reasons for the misinformation and lack-of-awareness surrounding our sleep need:

  1. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. There’s a deep and enduring cultural ambivalence toward sleep, and this is reflected in the schedules that we’re encouraged to live by every day in order to be “good” employees, students, etc. In turn, many of us have internalized this inverted notion of the relationship between sleep and success--in other words, we see sleep as being an opponent to our productivity, rather than recognizing it for what it is: an essential component.
  2. Siloed sleep research. Part of this ambivalence likely comes from our collective undereducation about the importance of sleep, which is clearly reflected in the lack of, insufficient, or contrary-to-science corporate policies regarding sleep. To paraphrase sleep scientist Dr. Mark Rosekind, Rise Science advisor and a guest on our podcast recently, policies related to sleep in jobs, schools, and other institutions aren’t currently aligned with the sleep research that’s out there. He believes--and so do we--that until rulemakers start taking sleep more seriously, it will continue to be an uphill battle for most.
  3. Misunderstanding caffeine. Caffeine masks feelings of sleepiness by blocking the sleep-inducing chemicals that flood our brain when we’re underslept. So while a cup of coffee or tea can be a great tool for cutting through morning grogginess, it doesn’t actually help us overcome a sleep deficit. In reality, feeling tired is just one of the many side-effects of sleep debt--we might not be dozing off at our desks after that energy drink, but behind the scenes we’re still experiencing the mental, emotional, and social sabotage talked about in the last section. 
  4. Go big or go home. Research shows that small habits most frequently drive lasting change. Despite this, however, humans are inherently suspicious of the notion that small regular actions can lead to big outcomes. So the idea of budgeting for another 30-45 minutes of sleep each night (which for many can be life-changing) can feel like we’re just throwing that time into the void, very possibly without anything to show for it. 
  5. Our brains lie to us. Lastly and perhaps most critically, as humans we’re biologically wired to not feel the extent to which we’re sleep-deprived. We acclimate to our own sleepiness, and aren’t able to recognize declines in our own performance--so even if someone with high sleep debt isn’t actively feeling their fatigue, their work is still suffering. This makes chronic sleep loss a cycle that’s tough to see, let alone break. 

So while sleep is easily the cheapest, fastest, and most impactful way to start seeing team-wide performance gains, it suffers from the bad press of decades of misunderstanding that other tools, solutions, and techniques don’t. 

This brings us to another question we’ve learned to anticipate: if sleep is so important, why don’t I just tell my employees to sleep more and move on? Unfortunately, simply telling someone to improve their sleep doesn’t cut it. Since we’re programmed to not feel the effects of our own sleep-deprivation and subsequent performance declines, many of us don’t know how much sleep we actually need to function optimally nor how much sleep debt we owe. 

How RISE can help

This is where RISE comes in--the first step to improving employee sleep is providing an objective way to measure 1) each person’s unique sleep need and 2) the amount of sleep debt they’re accruing (or not) with each night’s sleep. RISE does both these things, and also advises on how to begin paying down that debt through improved sleep habits customized to their individual needs and chronobiology. And, what’s more, when you use RISE to promote sleep as a team-wide initiative, you’re adding the power of group accountability, and establishing among your employees a shared language of sleep--aspects that further encourage lasting change and resultant revenue gains.

Sleep is the unsung hero of business success. By offering your employees better sleep using a tool like RISE--that is, a personalized, objective, and actionable way of measuring their sleep--you’ll be putting them in the best position to meet their potential...and when your team members are healthy, happy, and operating at full capacity each day, revenue will rise.


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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.


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