Are managers sacrificing sleep to get more work done?

Gordon Sayre outlines the results of his recent research study into leaders’ sleep habits and their connection with working hours and productivity

Managers often have very busy schedules. Whether it’s completing daily working tasks, supporting others or dealing with big issues and challenges, it’s safe to say that many managers feel pressure and stress regularly in their work. And with the uncertainty and turbulence of the last year and a half, it’s likely managers are even more overworked than usual and are struggling to complete all their tasks within their normal day-to-day schedule.

So, if managers are overworked and struggling to fit everything in, what are they sacrificing in order to complete all their working tasks? This is what we examined further in a research collaboration between emlyon business school and Pennsylvania State University. Our results indicated that many overworked managers are actually sacrificing their sleep to get more work done. While they feel more productive that day, a large body of scientific evidence suggests that their subsequent performance will decline with a lack of sleep. 

It’s recommended that all adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, in order to fully repair the body and be fit and ready for another day. Yet, many managers report sleeping less than this recommended amount. Indeed, in our sample, hotel managers slept 6.6 hours per night on average, with 21 per cent sleeping fewer than six hours per night. Our goal was to understand why managers might be sacrificing sleep, especially given the well-known benefits sleep has for our physical and mental health. 

Working with my colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University, we interviewed 98 hotel managers, who participated in an eight-day daily diary study focused on work and home interactions. Each day, the managers were asked a series of questions about the previous night’s sleep and their work that day, focusing on sleep duration, work mood, work time and perceived productivity. We focused on hotel managers given the demanding, 24/7 nature of their job. Hotel managers are often called in during nights and days off to address unexpected events like a sudden maintenance issue or an employee calling out unexpectedly. As such, they must often make decisions between getting enough sleep and accomplishing their work responsibilities. 

The findings were concerning, with managers tending to sleep less in order to spend more time at work. In fact, managers worked 31 minutes and 12 seconds longer for every hour of sleep lost. As a result of this decision, managers who sacrificed sleep and worked longer hours reported feeling more productive that day. In short, managers who slept less put those extra hours into their work time, and felt more productive as a result. 

These results should be interpreted with some caution, however, as it’s likely that this increased productivity is only perceived by the manager, or at the very least short-lived. Many managers may be mistaking long work hours with high productivity, which often is not the case. Indeed, maintaining a high level of productivity over a long period of time is quite difficult, especially after sleeping less than the recommended amount each night. If managers were able to sleep the recommended hours, it’s likely they would be more productive in the long run. 

Clearly, reducing your sleep hours and boosting your work hours is also not a sustainable, healthy, or a wise choice in the long term. It’s clear from a wide range of scientific evidence that sleep has real benefits to our health, happiness, and performance. Managers that are under pressure to perform may feel they have to sacrifice sleep in order to get work done. While this feeling is understandable, it’s important to note that any small gains in productivity are far outweighed by the long-term costs of not getting enough sleep.

So, how can managers get out of this maladaptive cycle, and how can organisations help make it easier for them to be productive?

To address this problem, organisations must work towards reducing and eliminating this trade-off between sleep and work for managers. One way to achieve this is by encouraging a healthier work-life balance. 

Managers of hotels, like many industries, often contend with a ‘face time’ culture, where long hours are equated with dedication, and are necessary to climb the ranks. Actively combating this face time culture can reduce the pressure placed on managers to sacrifice sleep in order to work longer hours. Organisations should carefully evaluate their present culture, including whether long hours are incentivised more than actual results. 

Another approach is to ensure that top leadership are role modelling appropriate work-life balance. Instead of bragging about how little sleep they need to function, top leaders should be encouraging healthier choices through example. Doing so will help create healthier norms around sleep and work, improving wellbeing and performance in the long term. 

Gordon Sayre is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at emlyon business school