Looking For An Innovative Edge? You'll Find It Between The Sheets

New studies reveal the ill effects of sleeplessness with incredible precision, to the point that tweaking sleep patterns may be the next frontier in goosing creativity and productivity.

If you haven’t already noticed (perhaps due to lack of sleep), sleep research is kind of a big deal these days.

Hundreds of studies, thousands of test subjects, and millions of dollars have been poured into the science of sleep over the past decade, and with good reason: Americans are terrible sleepers and we don’t like it very much--as evidenced by the 25% of Americans who take sleep aids every year. In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Up All Night” traces the history of our modern--and troubled--relationship with sleep, discovering that more than half of American adults “experience a sleep problem almost every night, and nearly two-thirds complain that they are not getting enough rest during the week.” More likely than not, you are nodding off at your desk right about now.

Kolbert’s article only touches briefly on the potential of the “fatigue management” industry, but the new field could mean big bucks for research in the not-too-distant future. A study published last month in the Journal of Applied Psychology found the startling evidence that even a single night of interrupted slumber can have a dramatic effect on job performance, and perhaps more importantly, an employee’s ability to enjoy working.

The study monitored week-long sleep patterns of 87 participants followed by a detailed interview about job satisfaction and organizational behavior. The results: Just one hour of sleep loss resulted in an average 8% decline in job satisfaction and a 14% reduction in behaviors that most employers would consider above and beyond the typical call of duty. In other words, that always-gives-100% rock star only expended a ho-hum 86% of his typical energy (and had an attitude problem, to boot).

The takeaway here is not the obvious fact that sleep loss affects performance. The big revelation is that minimal variations can have major impact. In one study, participants were limited to 5 hours of sleep per night for a week--reasonable by some standards--and the results were compared to subjects under the effects of alcohol. By the end of the week, test subjects had response-time equivalent to intoxication levels that would put a commercial driver behind bars in all 50 states.

“If you had a couple drinks and showed up at your job, there’s a good chance you would be fired,” said study co-author Christopher Barnes. “But if you show up sleep-deprived, it might have the same effect on your performance, and yet that’s often encouraged.”

The good news is that the effect appears to be cumulative, meaning that those lost hours can be recouped. After that 5-hour/night week of shut-eye, test subjects were able to return to normal with a single 8-hour snooze. Research also shows that micro-napping--as little as 6 minutes--can improve memory and brain function. A few companies began to pick up on this trend back in the free-swinging 2000s, but the movement was small and it focused on employee well-being, not productivity. Only now is the research beginning to make a real argument for the dollars-and-cents of improved sleep patterns.

As liability surrounding work-induced fatigue increased in the 1990s, industries beholden to heavy machinery began to take sleep research very seriously, using several key studies as a basis to implement strict regulations. But despite the recent explosion of solid research, comprehensive studies on the performance effects of sleep deprivation in the white-collar workplace are nearly non-existent.

The first major study to show a measurable effect of fatigue on innovation will undoubtedly send shockwaves through the caffeine-fueled idea factories across America--if only the authors aren't too tired to get around to actually writing it.

--Colin Weatherby is an editorial intern at Fast Company. You can find him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Chantel Beam]

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