How to improve performance when sleep-deprived

sleeps effect on HR performance teamwork Copyright Samantha Marx Flickr

You can’t always get a good night’s sleep. Screaming babies. Stress. Traffic noise. Time shortages. Snoring. Distractions. Coffee overindulgence.

If you find that you or your staff are coming into work tired, or are exhausted by the end of the day, you aren’t alone. In fact, you’re in very good company.

Only 31% of Americans have gotten enough sleep every night in the past month. 11% didn’t get enough sleep on any night.

Sleep deprivation can cause potent decreases in workplace productivity. Sleep improves learning, sharpens focus, and strengthens the immune system. Studies of rats have shown that after a few weeks without sleep, the immune system is so compromised that death is imminent.

When people are deprived of sleep, their metabolism can slow, causing them to gain weight. After extended periods of wakefulness, we become forgetful, and can even hallucinate. Social interaction becomes more difficult, which can cause tension and even workplace violence

Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina wanted to find out if working in pairs can help reduce the symptoms of sleep deprivation. They recruited 24 well-rested participants, and kept them awake for 30 consecutive hours.

social teamwork and collaboration keeps you awake

High five! It might be the only reason you’re still awake.
Flickr/Vicious Bits

During the period of sleep deprivation, volunteers were asked to complete concentration tasks both individually and in pairs. To keep participants motivated, the best performers were compensated with cash rewards.

The study found that, as expected, practice caused the teams to improve as the night wore on. The average pairing was more successful at 10am on day 2, after having repeated the experiment a dozen times, than on their first try the day before. 

As the night progressed, however, the participants were less and less capable of maintaining their focus. After 10pm, the volunteers could concentrate for about 10 minutes, and then their performance within a task declined dramatically. When doing individual tasks, these results were even more significant.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that working in teams can partially compensate for sleep deprivation. Their findings are particularly important for staffing in industries that are extremely fast paced, stressful, or demand long hours—like medicine and manufacturing.

A personnel manager who identifies periods of exhaustion for staff, and compensates by having them work in teams, can increase productivity across an organization. The best performance management system will also make sure that teams are periodically rotated; the novel experience of new partners can offer a further motivational boost.

How do you make your HR system social?

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;; Pilcher, J.J., Vander Wood, M.A., & O’Connell, K.L. (2011). “The effects of extended work under sleep deprivation conditions on team-based performance.” Ergonomics 54(7). 587–596.

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