Sleep-related absenteeism is expensive, costing tens of billions of dollars a year. But what about productivity and performance among sleep deprived employees who are at work?

Here, but absent

Tens of millions of employees every day are dragging themselves to work, only to face the challenges of trying to function at their best without the benefit of sufficient sleep. Presenteeism is the term that’s used to describe the behavior of employees who attend work, but underperform because of an illness or condition, including sleep loss.

Let’s take a closer look at what science is telling us about the impact of poor sleep on key measurements of performance and productivity.

Focus and attention

Studies testing the effects of sleep deprivation on attention and focus show that lack of sleep leads to broad impairment of these skills: slowing reaction and response time, reducing accuracy, prolonging attention lapses, increasing errors of both omission and commission and lengthening time-on-task measurements.

"Studies show that sleep may be able to be used to facilitate and deliberately enhance creativity."

Our ability to multi-task suffers as a result of sleeplessness. One recent study simulating the conditions of sleep deprivation throughout a single workweek found that multi-tasking ability grew progressively worse over the course of the week, as sleep deprivation accumulated.

Memory and learning

Insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality both interfere with our ability to learn, as well as our ability to store memories, over the short and the long-term. Studies show sleep impairs short-term, or working, memory: the first stop for brand new information in the brain’s memory-making process.

Other executive functions

Sleeplessness leads to compromises in reasoning skills and to judgment, decision-making and planning. According to research, sleep deprived people are more likely to make riskier, less considered and ultimately less advantageous decisions.

Creativity and innovation

Abundant, healthy sleep boosts creativity and innovative thinking. Sleep enhances insight—the reorganizing of ideas and information that helps us see and understand things in new ways.

Sleep increases cognitive flexibility, a central aspect of creative problem solving. Sleep is linked to the brain’s ability to synthesize information, to make novel connections between unassociated and divergent information and ideas, connections that lead to creative, innovative results and solutions. Studies show that sleep may be able to be used to facilitate and deliberately enhance creativity.

Effort

Research indicates that a single night of sleep loss can have a significant effect on next-day effort, making people more likely to opt for less-demanding tasks and problems.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when sleep deprived, our perception of our effort output is the same as when we’re rested. The same research suggests that we don’t feel as though we’re exerting less effort, even as we avoid more difficult tasks in favor of easier ones when short on sleep.