x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Why catching some Zs can get you an A+ in the office

The Life: A good night's sleep is one of the most crucial factors if you want to succeed at work, according to the research director of a UK business school.

Vicki Culpin, the research director at Ashridge Business School , says sleep is a crucial factor in employee output. Satish Kumar / The National
Vicki Culpin, the research director at Ashridge Business School , says sleep is a crucial factor in employee output. Satish Kumar / The National

After a presentation on leadership and resilience, Vicki Culpin, the research director at the UK-based Ashridge Business School, was approached by a senior barrister.

The barrister recalled that early in his career, just after graduating from university, staff at his law firm decided to compete over who could put in the longest hours. They started working 12, 13 and 14-hour days. Then one person brought in a sleeping bag and began sleeping at the office. Before long, no one was going home in the evenings - apart from one person with childcare commitments, who left at 5.30pm.

After four months, it dawned on everyone that the person who was leaving on time - putting in a quarter of the hours of everyone else - was winning more cases than the rest of the firm put together.

"Lawyers are supposed to be bright individuals, but it took four months for them to work that out," Ms Culpin told a group of executives who gathered at The Address hotel in Dubai to hear her briefing.

"This philosophy of presenteeism, being at the office [for long] hours, equating to productivity … absolutely not. Just because you are at work, at your desk, does not mean you are being productive."

There are a number of factors that affect resilience, including a healthy diet, exercise, being able to discuss work issues with colleagues and family, and self-confidence. But sleep is the most crucial factor, according to Ms Culpin.

Research suggests that getting one-and-a-half hours' less sleep a night than the average seven to eight hours adults need results in a 32 per cent decrease in productivity the following day.

"If you have three people who work for you getting an hour-and-a-half to two hours' less sleep a night than they need, basically you are paying for one of them to be asleep all day," Ms Culpin says . "That's the bottom line."

Lack of sleep affects not only productivity, but what Ms Culpin calls "executive functions" - the kinds of behaviours that executives and leaders use on a daily basis. That is to say: decision-making, problem-solving, creativity and innovation.

Behaviour can become risky, she says. Communication skills falter and people struggle to find the right words or use inappropriate humour. They anger faster and may cry more easily. It becomes more difficult to be innovative and people tend to fall back on tried and tested methods that may not work.

"Those are the things that fall down and they fall down very, very quickly," she says. "The kinds of behaviour you are demonstrating for your team, for your personal life, for your organisation are very quickly affected by poor sleep."

Ms Culpin points out that in the official report into what caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster, there is a paragraph that "categorically states" that poor sleep led to poor decision-making. She also notes that one-in-six fatal road accidents are caused by sleep-deprived drivers.

Gradually, though, it is becoming easier to persuade organisations to take the well-being of their staff more seriously.

"Presenteeism is now costing industry more than absenteeism and it's those kinds of facts and figures that persuade CEOs," she says. "I'd like to think that in the same way that sustainability is almost embedded in everything we do - and that has taken 10 years - I'd like to think in another 10 years the well-being stuff will be just as much a part of organisational life."

Ms Culpin adds that she would like to do research in the Arabian Gulf region to discover what resilience issues there are here.

In Dubai in particular, there "really seems to be a culture of burning the candle at both ends", she says.

"There is so little research looking at this region," she says. "My feeling is there would be specific issues with this culture. The high temperatures mean it's more pleasant to be out later at night [and] there is a culture of staying up very late even with young children. But if you have work or spiritual demands very early in the morning, then that's a problem. I'd love to find out if that is more than anecdotal and really an issue. [We need] more data."

lgutcher@thenational.ae