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Sleep quality affects job satisfaction and turnover. Photo: JeShoots

How can companies reduce employee churn by focusing on sleep?

Poor sleep appears inherently linked with job satisfaction, as well as job performance. How can improving sleep improve employee happiness, performance, and retention, benefitting both employee and employer?

Why do people leave their jobs? The answers that first come to mind may include “finding a better alternative”, “wanting to spend more time with family”, and “the hours aren’t working”, but ultimately the vast majority express a fundamental dissatisfaction with the person’s current situation. What lies at the heart of this dissatisfaction, and how can we make an impact to improve people’s satisfaction with work, thereby benefitting both employee and employer?

One of the most overlooked factors for this dissatisfaction is sleep – rather, the lack thereof. A survey conducted of an employee population of 1,000 people brought to light the correlation between lack of sleep and the desire to leave a job.

The study found that 40% of people who indicated they were “dissatisfied with their sleep” were already looking for another job. It also uncovered that people who arrived at work tired three or more days a week were 10% more likely to already be on the job hunt.

How does sleep quality affect work?

Sleep is a basic need. When we do not get enough sleep, we deteriorate. We deteriorate in cognitive performance, physical performance, and mood. Our resilience decreases, as does our discipline, attention to detail, impulsive decision-making, and sociability. These factors are all key to being a productive, engaged member of the workforce.

We will look at four of the most crucial elements (performance, resilience, optimism, and decision-making) to understand how sleep has an impact.

“40% of people “dissatisfied with their sleep” are already looking for another job” 

Sleep quality and job performance

In his book “Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker notes that “insufficient sleep cost almost $2,000 per employee per year in lost productivity”, a figure that rose to >$3,500 for those with the most severe sleep deprivation (Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep (p. 298). Penguin Books Ltd). The RAND Corporation estimates that £40 billion a year in the UK alone is lost due to lowered productivity resulting from sleep deprivation.

Why is this? It’s more difficult to concentrate, people feel less motivated and the quality of output decreases. A survey conducted by CareerBuilder analyzed the sleep of 32,000 workers in the US, finding that 58% thought they weren’t getting enough sleep, with 61% saying that sleep deprivation affected their work.

The fact of the matter is: we like to be good at what we do, and we aren’t our best when under-slept. When we feel our performance starts to slip, this causes both stress and a lack of job satisfaction. If this happens on a consistent basis, low morale and subsequent turnover are far more likely to occur.

“Insufficient sleep cost almost $2,000 per employee per year” 

Sleep is key to building resilience

Resilience is “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness” (OED). We know sleep lowers physical resilience. But it also lowers mental resilience; ie. we are less adaptable to change. Sleep aids with memory consolidation, learning, and – crucially – neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s adaptive mechanism: it allows us to change and grow. If we are not getting enough sleep, the brain cannot rest, repair, and eliminate unnecessary information (synaptic pruning) to the same extent, which has real effects on our day-to-day behaviors, emotions, and moods. Think of our brains like a computer; if you don’t do the necessary reboot of the system every so often and keep all the unused tabs open, there is too much information and the computer slows down, with reduced capacity for new tasks. Similarly, we become slower, more resistant to change, and ultimately, less resilient.

When someone’s resilience is lowered, they are far more likely to feel dissatisfied with their job, affecting the job performance and morale of themselves and potentially of their colleagues.

“61% of employees say sleep deprivation affects their work” 

The effect of sleep on optimism (and optimism on sleep)

Optimistic people sleep better. An Austrian study found that “the probability of suffering from sleep disorders and/or insomnia was around 70% lower among optimistic participants than it was among those who tended towards pessimism”. However, recent studies have shown that there is more to this picture than meets the eye. “Optimism and sleep quality were both cause and effect of each other” found in a longitudinal study. What this means is that optimism is not only affected by your sleep but also affects your sleep. It follows that people can therefore get into a cycle of sleep deprivation: the more sleep deprived you are, the more pessimistic you are likely to be, the worse you are likely to sleep, the more pessimistic…

Sleep is like the lens on a pair of glasses; it colors how we see the world. When we’re well-rested, the world looks bright. When we’re exhausted, the world seems inherently more hostile. Interestingly though, research shows that this is more true for some people than others. A longitudinal study showed that poor sleep resulted in pessimistic feelings, specifically “in non-morning persons”. This means that anywhere between 15% and 75% of your employees are likely to have more pessimistic tendencies when they are not sleeping well.

How does sleep affect decision-making?

This is a growing area of research, about which much more investigation is required. However, current findings have concluded the following:

  • A 2020 study concluded that “under the effects of sleep loss, people habitually more reflective and cautious become more impulsive and prone to risk-taking during decision-making based on deliberative [reasoning]”
  • Short bouts of sleep deprivation have no effect on impulsive decisions, but “chronic sleep restriction increases risk-seeking”.
  • Under-slept people are less likely to handle risky situations effectively: “Our findings tell us that putting sleep-deprived people in perilous environments is an inherently risky business and raises a number of medical, legal, and financial implications”.

Not only are people less able to make good decisions when tired, but they also make riskier and more “impulsive” decisions. These impulsive decisions not only can understandably be very costly for a business (from a negligence perspective), but can also lead someone to quit their job where they otherwise may not have.

To Conclude

Sleep is a key accelerant of attrition. Sleep deprivation lowers performance, mood/optimism, and resilience and increases the likelihood of impulsive decision-making. These factors all add up to an employee being dissatisfied with their current work, and even leaving their job prematurely.

Whether you are an employee who wants to safeguard your job or a business owner/leader who wants to reduce attrition, sleep may be the one high-impact lever you may have overlooked.

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