Author Spotlight: Vicki Culpin

Vicki is currently Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School, having previously held positions as Dean of Faculty and Global Director of Research.

Vicki specialises in well-being research, specifically related to memory and sleep. She has spent nearly 20 years researching memory, the impact of poor memory, how to improve memory and the effects of reduced sleep with a variety of individuals including older adults, children, forensic populations and employees. More recent research and teaching interests include the relationship between sleep, well-being and derailment and the relationship between sleep and resilience in management populations.

Vicki also researches and teaches in the field of adult pedagogy, specifically in relation to learning transfer and how to make learning experiences ‘sticky’. She works with a range of clients from across the world, teaching leadership development, along with sharing her research findings. 

Vicki studied Psychology at Manchester University, followed by an MPhil and PhD in Psychology from Lancaster University and an MSc in Applied Forensic Psychology from Leicester University. She is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Chartered Psychologist and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Sleep research appears to be a growing area of interest – how did you get into the subject? What was it about the topic that drew you in?

I completed my PhD on the topic of memory, and was working in an academic environment, teaching and researching on this topic, when I was asked to work with a colleague in a sleep lab.  There is a clinical condition called sleep apnoea, and one of the symptoms is poor memory.  Individuals who suffer from sleep apnoea often self-report very poor memory, and when they are tested in a hospital environment, they often do show memory deficits. I was asked to be involved in a research project in a hospital sleep lab, examining whether, once sleep apnoea was treated, patients’ memory also improved (and hopefully went back to normal). After a while I became much more interested in the sleep angle than the memory angle.

I then completed a study with a colleague, looking at the effect of poor sleep on anger, hostility and aggression in young offenders, and these two projects made me realise that I had a real passion for the topic of sleep, and how it affects individuals. Around about that time I moved from a traditional university environment to a Business School environment, working with business leaders, and it became very clear, very quickly, that the topic of poor sleep was as pertinent in a business environment as in any clinical or forensic environment, and the rest is history!

Are poor sleep habits a cultural issue, to some extent? Have you come across any countries or cultures that handle sleep in a way that is healthier than most?

This is a very interesting question, and to some extent there are cultural issues; not just at the country level, but also at the organizational level. Looking at geographical differences, there are a number of Scandinavian countries that have very clear regulations and laws around working hours.  Whilst this is not directly linked to sleep, it does of course mean that there is a message around well-being and looking after oneself. The issue is, though, that people may choose to do other things (including work at home!) with this ‘extra’ time rather than get more sleep – and this is where cultural issues go beyond countries.

We all know that when we are tired, we’re not performing at our best. However, I think a lot of us don’t fully understand the extent to which a lack of sleep can affect us. What are the long-lasting effects of being sleep deprived?

Chronic poor sleep can have very serious health consequences over the longer term.  For example, a study by RAND in 2016 found that at any point in time, individuals regularly sleeping for less than 6 hours per night had a 13% increase in their mortality. For those people sleeping between 6-7 hours per night there was still a shocking 7% increase in mortality at any given time.

Research has also found that long term insufficient sleep has been linked to seven of the 15 leading causes of death - cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicaemia and hypertension.

So there are some very serious, very real dangers to not getting enough quality sleep! What, then, would your advice be to line managers in training and future HR workforces for tackling the effects of poor sleep in organizations?

  • Put sleep on the agenda, talk about it at all levels within the organization, and share the array of ways that sleep loss can affect people. Build a climate of trust around the topic, so that people can be open and honest about how it is affecting them.

  • Develop a travel policy for your employees, and ensure it includes provision for sleep and recovery days for national or international travel. This may include a policy not allowing people to drive their own car home from the airport after international trips, and ensuring that individuals who spend time on the road (e.g. sales staff) are required to stay in a hotel overnight after 8 hours, rather than log overtime and drive home.

  • Recommend breaks before and during major meetings where key strategic decisions are being made, and ensure these are conducted at an appropriate time of day, and that individuals are not jet lagged.

  • Encourage good work-life balance and healthy lifestyles in employees, through provision of education, schemes to support lifestyle changes, advice available, and the working environment.

  • When employees present with physical, social, emotional or work issues, be mindful of potential symptoms of sleep loss.

  • Act as a role model in terms of sleep management – do not espouse well-being values if they are not demonstrated consistently from the leadership teams.

  • Highlight the positive actions of other role models. Find and share examples of how successful employees at all levels of the organization have addressed and overcome the impact of sleep loss, and include stories of employees who have the ‘right’ work life balance and are highly successful within the organization.

  • Create flexible ways of working that enable employees to operate at their peak, and provide employees with choices around working times.

  • Treat each individual differently, as each employee will respond to sleep loss differently, and may or may not seek assistance. Do not assume age, seniority or other factors impact all people the same way.

  • Keep checking with individuals throughout their time with the organization, as the impact of sleep loss they experience may change over time.

Watch Vicki’s TEDx talk here to find out more about the business of sleep. 

The Business of Sleep is available here for purchase.