In the 1920s, German psychiatrist Hans Berger discovered electroencephalography (EEG), a method that uses electrodes placed on the scalp to measure electrical activity in different areas of the brain. Berger’s breakthrough provided medical professionals of the time with a revolutionary testing tool that continues to be used widely today in the diagnosis of sleep disorders, head injuries, brain tumours, seizure disorders, dementia, and many other conditions.  

Since Berger made the first EEG recording in 1924, further advances in science and medicine have given researchers the resources to gain a deeper understanding of how we sleep, why we sleep, and what happens when we don’t get enough sleep.

During sleep, many important biological processes occur, including tissue repair, muscle growth, and the elimination of waste from the brain. Getting enough good-quality sleep can improve mood and concentration, help the immune system perform to the best of its ability, and lower the risk of certain health problems. On the other hand, an insufficient amount of sleep can heighten the stress response, cause emotional irregularities, and lead to cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.

Because sleep (or lack of it) has a considerable influence on how we function throughout the day, productivity can be affected — either positively or negatively — by our sleep patterns, sleep quality, and sleep duration.

The relationship between sleep and productivity

A 2018 study examined the relationship between sleep and workplace productivity. It assessed nightly sleep duration, which was categorized as very short (less than four hours), short (five to six hours), normal (seven to eight hours), or long (more than nine hours). The study also explored the impact of other sleep issues on productivity, including insomnia and snoring.  

The findings indicated lower productivity levels in participants who fell in the very short, short, or long sleep duration categories. Those who slept the least (for less than four hours per night) saw the biggest relative loss of productivity. Insomnia and snoring were also found to be associated with lower levels of productivity.

It isn’t just sleep duration that can affect productivity: a study from 2020 indicates a link between sleep quality and productivity, too.

The study was conducted in an urban area of India, where factors like environmental noise, mosquitoes, heat, and other physical discomforts can lead to suboptimal sleeping conditions. Although participants of the study spent an average of 8 hours in bed each night, they only slept for an average of 5.6 hours.

Over three weeks, the individuals partook in a program that increased their sleep time by 27 minutes per night, but it had little to no effect on their productivity, mental well-being, or cognitive abilities. However, researchers found that having participants take naps at the office — where the sleeping environment was improved and they could sleep better — resulted in measurable improvements in performance and productivity.

Research suggests that the relationship between sleep and productivity is bidirectional: just as an unsatisfying night’s sleep can influence how we function the next day, what we do throughout the day (our productivity) can affect our sleep at night.

A 2020 study involving full-time workers in America explored the potential impact of job stressors on sleep quality. It considered three dependent variables of poor sleep quality: the number of days the participant had difficulty falling asleep, the number of days they had difficulty staying asleep, and the number of days of non-restorative sleep.

The study demonstrated an association between work overloads and poor sleep quality, and performing repetitive tasks at work was linked with difficulty maintaining sleep. Role conflict was found to be connected to difficulty initiating sleep and non-restorative sleep.

How does sleep boost productivity?

Sleep gives the body the opportunity to rest and recover so we can perform to the best of our abilities. Body tissues are repaired and strengthened during sleep, and hormones that help the immune system stave off infections are produced and released. In non-REM sleep, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure drop below the levels we experience while awake.

Getting enough good quality sleep can support brain function, energy levels, mental health, and mood. As we sleep, the brain builds and maintains pathways that are used to create and retain memories. The processes that take place in the brain during sleep help bolster learning and problem-solving skills, which are essential to our productivity. 

Sleep allows the brain and body the time and resources they need to relax and recuperate, helping us to be properly rested and prepared for the day’s activities. An adequate amount of good sleep is essential to our overall mental and physical well-being and can offer a number of benefits that may boost productivity.

Practising good sleep habits — such as following a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding stimulants before bedtime — can promote better sleep, and incorporating a relaxing nighttime routine (like reading or taking a warm bath) may help to ease stress before bed. If ongoing or severe problems with sleep are interfering with your day-to-day life, consult your doctor for guidance and treatment.