Management Educators Are Asleep at the Wheel

Future managers and leaders need a reality check on how sleep will affect their working lives

The essentials

In Work and Sleep: Research Insights for the Workplace (Oxford 2016), the authors advise management educators to ensure their lesson plans include the latest research into sleep and its impact on careers. “Anything less is irresponsible,” the write, “and will lead us to produce future managers who harm the performance of their organization and the well-being of their employees.” The following is adapted from Work and Sleep, edited by Julian Barling, Christopher M. Barnes, Erica L. Carleton, and David T. Wagner and available here

Most people have a general understanding that they feel worse and probably per­form worse when they are short on sleep than when they are well rested. Despite this general understanding, the data clearly indicate that people often do not apply this abstract idea to concrete behaviour in their everyday lives; people often either decide explicitly— or implicitly through their behavioural choices— that sleep is less important than other activities in their lives. Thus, although it is essential to educate students to a point at which they can answer on an examination that a lack of sleep leads to poor performance, cognitive errors, and decrements in mood, this alone will likely be insufficient to change how they manage issues surrounding sleep.

Students need to understand on a more concrete level how this applies to the choices they make in their lives and in the context of their future jobs. They need to understand that even small amounts of lost sleep impact employees and orga­nizations in significant ways. They need to understand that attitudes about sleep being “only for the weak,” ideas that caffeine is the cure for lost sleep, or shared beliefs that dedicated workers should be willing to trade sleep for work are danger­ous for employees and organizations. Such beliefs will typically cause much more harm than good. Students need to understand how their job demands and super­visors may push them to cut into their sleep, and that they will face temptations to trade the short-term benefits of working when they should be sleeping for the cumulative and often longer-term costs of sleep deprivation.

Once students appreciate the importance of sleep for work outcomes, it is impor­tant to give them tools to address the issue. We should educate them on both how to prevent sleep loss in the first place as well as how to mitigate the effects of sleep loss after they have occurred.

Teachable Moments

An obvious way to include the topic of sleep in management education is to include it as a topic in management textbooks and lectures. However, we argue that the strong misconceptions surrounding this topic require a specific pedagogical approach that goes above and beyond inclusion in textbooks and lectures, with teachable moments created before new knowledge is taught. Teachable moments arise spontaneously or can be created on purpose to confront people with the limitations of their currently held views and as a result enhance their willingness and ability to learn.

One of the great benefits of teachable moments is that they strongly encourage double-loop learning in which both the underlying assumptions are challenged as well as the resultant actions. The topic of sleep is surrounded by many prejudices that predominantly advocate that those who forego sleep in favour of work are better employees and that sleeping healthy amounts is for the weak. Furthermore, people have strong misconceptions about the immediacy of the effects of sleep loss. To address these prejudices and misconceptions, people need to be confronted in some way with the incorrectness of their ideas — it is not enough to simply tell them.

Students need to understand that even small amounts of lost sleep impact employees and orga­nizations in significant ways

A sleep audit paired with an in-class discussion to compare experiences would be one way to create such a teachable moment. As an educational exercise, manage­ment students can keep a diary of their sleep over the period of a week or two.

A more ambitious version of the exercise would entail including other measures, such as their mood at the time of each diary entry, or even having them engage in a cognitive task that can be objectively scored. Another option would be to have stu­dents note in each entry why they slept the amount indicated; this might make it clear that they chose to stay up late studying (or engaging in various social events), or that stress made it hard to sleep. The more the sleep audit ties into their personal lives, the more effective it will be in personalizing the topic of sleep. If the sleep audit is paired with an in-class discussion students are given the opportunity to convince each other of the effects of sleep (loss) and to be aware of more than just their own experiences.

Challenging Assumptions

Another option to create a teachable moment would be to give a quiz on the assumptions about sleep deprivation in class. This is a more cognitive and less experiential exercise, but it will challenge many assumptions. A simple set of multiple choice or true/ false questions will give students an opportunity to voice their currently held assumptions, essentially tapping their lay theories of sleep. Some examples are “Most people do not actually need 8 hours of sleep to perform at their best,” “Missing 40 minutes of sleep on a single night will not significantly impact work the next day,” and “People’s ability to assess risks is not impaired by sleep loss.” These statements are false, as indicated by the research literature. To the degree that students get any or all of these questions wrong, their assumptions will be called into question. This should leave them more open to appreciating the topic of sleep and sleep-related content that management educators provide.

After students’ assumptions have been challenged in this way, we suggest teach­ing the relevant content in more traditional ways, with a combination of textbooks, lectures, and case studies. To fully get the message across concerning both how important and how tricky the topic of sleep is for managers, we would recommend that students are able to apply their knowledge in a simulation of a company that struggles with sleep deprivation and its effects and causes. Ideally this would reveal the difficulties they will experi­ence as a manager in scheduling employees for long shifts, scheduling employees for night shifts, and minimizing slack personnel resources.

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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