Sleep Deprivation Dulls Our Emotional Intelligence, Which Could Damage the Workplace

Sleep Deprivation Dulls Our Emotional Intelligence, Which Could Damage the Workplace

At the Wall Street Journal, Andrea Petersen rounds up evidence that sleep deprivation not only diminishes performance and cognitive ability, it messes with our emotional perceptions as well:

Researchers have found that people who are sleep-deprived have difficulty reading the facial expressions of other people, particularly when the expressions are more subtle. They are less able to discern, for example, whether a spouse is annoyed or just serene. People also are less emotionally expressive when they haven’t gotten enough sleep. They smile less, for example, even when they feel something is funny. Using neuroimaging, scientists are discovering certain patterns of brain activity that may be behind the emotional volatility that can be caused by lack of sleep. …

In one 2014 study published in Experimental Brain Research, 49 healthy young adults were divided into two groups. One spent a night without any sleep, while the other was able to sleep normally. The next day, the subjects were presented with images of faces that varied in the degree of emotional expression. The sleep-deprived subjects were much slower at identifying the emotions in all types of faces and were less able to accurately identify the sad faces.

Other studies have found that sleep-deprived people are less able to accurately identify angry and happy faces, too, particularly when the expressions are subtle. While many sleep deprivation studies have subjects go without an entire night of sleep, scientists say the results likely are applicable to the more real-world experience of chronically getting an insufficient amount of shut-eye.

A recent study has also linked a lack of sleep to lower levels of charisma among leaders, which researchers attributed to a decreased ability to regulate their emotions. I think the other interesting side of this is how sleep deprivation can essentially contribute directly to a more hostile work environment, and how that might relate to retention and engagement.

As someone whose work focuses on diversity and inclusion I would be particularly curious to explore the relationships between high-stress (and low-sleep) work environments and those in which employees report a lack of inclusion—i.e., do places or circumstances that cause employees to have less sleep also impact their ability to create inclusive spaces?

Petersen points to body language and heightened anxiety as tell tale signs of sleep deprivation; could these also contribute to both a propensity to feel negatively impacted by others’ comments in the workplace and an inability to restrain negative attitudes or behaviors? This is particularly interesting in the unconscious bias space because that veil of sleepiness seems like it could adversely impact workplace environments and relationships more than we think.