SCIENCE
04/26/2016 10:19 am ET Updated Apr 26, 2016

5 Ways Sleep Deprivation Makes You Bad At Your Job

If you want to be more productive, don't work more -- sleep more.
Studies show that sleep deprivation really does interfere with your work.
Sam Diephuis via Getty Images
Studies show that sleep deprivation really does interfere with your work.

Sleep deprivation is estimated to cost American corporations $63 billion annually in lost productivity, and yet, the idea that we must sacrifice sleep in order to succeed is still rampant in the American workplace.

Executives still wear all-nighters as a badge of honor, employees show their dedication by responding to emails at all hours of the night, and tech entrepreneurs subsist on as little as four hours osleep a night. 

But the idea that sacrificing sleep is the way to success couldn't be more misleading. A growing body of scientific research shows, unequivocally, that losing sleep can significantly impair productivity and performance on a number of different levels. The science has also shown that getting enough rest, on the other hand, might be a real competitive advantage

Here are five ways sleep loss is killing your productivity -- and proof that getting more sleep could be the best way to get ahead in your career.  

1. It's upping your stress levels.

Stress and sleep loss are a vicious cycle. High stress levels often play a role in insomnia and sleep disturbances, and poor sleep in turn contributes to greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in the body. Research has found that just 24 hours of sleep deprivation can significantly increase cortisol levels, while also hindering attention and working memory. 

Therefore, a stressed-out worker is not a productive worker. When we're stressed, we're not able to function at anywhere near an optimal level -- memory, learning, focus, decision-making and cognitive performance suffers as a result of both acute and chronic stress. 

2. You'll struggle with learning and memory. 

The amount of sleep we get each night is known to have an enormous impact on our ability to learn and remember information

When we're sleeping, our brain is busy forming new memories from our experiences and consolidating memories. But if we aren't getting sleep, our brains will have a much harder time with these basic functions. 

“We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” Dr. Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley sleep researcher, told the National Institutes of Health. “And then, sleep after learning is essential sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.”

When you haven't slept, your ability to learn new information could drop by up to 40 percent, according to Walker.

3. You're more likely to make bad decisions. 

Pulling an all-nighter might give you time to send out more emails, but it's likely to prove to be counterproductive. When deprived of sleep, we're significantly more likely to make bad decisions and exercise poor judgment -- which could easily end up costing more time and energy to correct.  

In extreme cases, sleep loss has been a factor in the poor decision-making that led to tragedies like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Chernobyl nuclear meltdown

A 2015 Washington State University study showed that sleep loss affects critical aspects of decision-making in high-stakes situations -- like the decisions made by doctors in the operating room and soldiers on the battlefield. When the study participants had been deprived of sleep, their brains were simply unable to process feedback from their actions and changing circumstances.

4. You need sleep in order to focus. 

It's pretty difficult to focus your attention on the task at hand -- and therefore to get anything done at all -- when you haven't gotten enough sleep. 

In fact, our ability to pay attention during the day critically depends on our ability to sleep at night. Now, scientists have a better sense of why. A study published in December in the journal Trends in Neurosciences found that sleep and attention regulate each other "like yin and yang," as they both come from a common brain function that allows us to selectively process some information, while ignoring most other sensory information in the environment. 

“Sleep and attention seem like opposite brain states, but they may actually arise from similar brain mechanisms that relate to ignoring the outside world," Leonie Kirszenblat, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Queensland and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post for a previous article.

5. Sleep loss hinders creativity and innovation. 

Finding inspiration and coming up with new ideas isn't the easiest thing to do when you're exhausted. Lack of sleep lowers activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for high-level thinking, self-control and creativity. One study conducted in the late '90s found that just 24 hours of sleep loss impairs innovative thinking and flexible decision-making.

If we don't sleep, we miss out on a powerful time for creative incubation. While we're sleeping, the brain is at work making creative connections and associations between unrelated thoughts and memories. 

A 2007 University of California at Berkeley study showed sleep to trigger “remote associates,” or unusual connections, in the brain. These connections could lead to a major “a-ha” moment upon waking, which may explain why we're 33 percent more likely to make connections between seemingly distantly related ideas upon waking.

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