Take These Steps to Detach and Unwind

Experts around the globe are begging people to get more rest. And with good reason. The scientific evidence about the importance of sleep is staggering — and yet, most people don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

Long days and busy, activity-filled lives are the norm for many people, and sleep is often sacrificed. Some take pride in being non-stop, won’t-sleep-much workplace warriors. But most people aren’t choosing to shortchange sleep.

“In fact, when I present sleep research to leaders, most of them talk about wanting more sleep and how can they get better sleep,” says CCL’s Cathleen Clerkin. “A big problem is that thoughts of work are interfering with sleep. People are ruminating about their day, worrying about work, or anticipating the next day.”

Our study of 384 leaders showed that many people try to sleep but are having trouble doing so. Notably, nearly 1 out of 4 reported that work-related issues kept them awake at least a few nights a week. We also found that:

  • 23% are troubled by work-related issues.
  • 22% analyze or dwell on recent events at work.
  • 20% worry about upcoming events or issues at work.

In the study, the inability to psychologically detach from work was one of the biggest predictors of sleep problems, even when controlling for things like age, individual differences, and lifestyle factors like exercise or caffeine consumption.

Inability to Let Go of the Workday

The inability to let go prevents people from falling asleep, and often if they wake up at night, they can’t go back to sleep because they start thinking about work. Some get up and write down ideas or reminders; others reach for their phone to check email. The problem is particularly difficult for people who have responsibilities across time zones, and are pressured to be available and responsive first thing in the morning or to be on call at night.

“Many people feel like they are always working,” Clerkin says. “They may be at home or in bed, but mentally, they are still at work.”

When people are always on, either literally responding to demands or anticipating them, sleep is compromised. When thoughts of work can’t be “switched off,” people don’t get the rest and recovery they need physically, as well as psychologically and emotionally.

Although sleep is a personal and individual matter, clearly workplace issues and organizational culture are affecting how people sleep. Plus, organizations suffer the costs of sleep deprivation.

Research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, mood, cognitive capacity, and productivity. A lack of sleep is associated with preventable accidents, medical errors, and motor vehicle crashes.

“If people are shortchanging sleep, they aren’t performing at their best,” notes Marian Ruderman, who co-authored CCL’s sleep study with Clerkin. “We know from many research studies that without enough sleep, a number of brain functions are compromised, causing a reduced ability to make decisions and to innovate, collaborate, and manage complexity.”

Executives Need Sleep, Too

On average, people think that the typical high-performing executive gets 42 minutes less sleep than the average employee. People believe, too, that the typical high-performing executive gets 27 minutes less rest than they themselves do. The belief is that to reach the top levels of an organization, you need to sacrifice sleep. And that once you’re there, you need to maintain this lifestyle to keep up with the demands of work.

In reality, there were no differences in self-reported sleep across all our respondents; consultants, CEOs, managers, and professionals in non-managerial positions all report getting similar hours of sleep.

Executives were also some of the least likely to endorse such statements as “I think of high performers as energetic people who don’t need much sleep” or that “putting in long hours and sacrificing rest is a necessary trade-off to get ahead at work.” When it comes to sleep, the view of the top does not match the view from the top.

How to Detach From Work

Fortunately, there are steps people can take for themselves and for their teams to encourage detaching from work and getting better sleep, including:

  • Set a regular schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends) reinforces a consistent sleeping cycle. Set a sleep schedule that allows you to get 7 to 8 hours.
  • Build in “work-free” time between work and bedtime. When you’re behind on a deadline, it is tempting to work right up until bedtime. However, this probably isn’t making you more productive. Your brain needs downtime after working before it can relax enough to fall asleep. If you don’t take the time to switch gears from work to sleep, you’re more likely to stay awake ruminating about work, and, in turn, have a harder time waking up and focusing on work in the morning. Try to dedicate at least a few hours before sleep as “work free” — no emails, no work meetings, no work discussions — to help you let go of your workday.
  • Use fitness wearables to understand your individual needs. Most have sleep-tracking functionality that will help you gain insight into how much you’re sleeping and the kinds of activities that impair or promote good sleep.
  • Find a relaxing routine. Routines and exercises that calm your body and mind can be effective at helping you psychologically detach from work and fall asleep. Some examples of relaxing routines include mindfulness or breathing practices, guided imagery exercises, or even just taking a hot bath.
  • Keep away from blue light. Blue light (such as the light emitted from your computer screen or cell phone) affects melatonin levels, making your body feel more alert. Thus, working right before bed (or in bed) can physically make it harder to sleep. To prevent this, keep your devices away from your bed, and resist the urge to check your smartphone in the middle of the night. If you have to have blue light devices in the bedroom, try wearing a sleep mask to keep the light from impacting you.
  • Set boundaries and make choices to get enough sleep. Beg off of a late dinner so you can be well-rested for an important morning presentation; let your team know you are changing your email habits and will not be sending emails between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. (or something similar); consider whether you’re a night owl or morning lark, and shift your priority work and schedule to accommodate your natural rhythms as best you can.
  • Keep tabs on alcohol and caffeine. We all know that caffeine can interfere with rest, but people are less aware that alcohol does as well. Alcohol may help you fall asleep but it can decrease the quality of your sleep, and wake you up when it wears off.
  • Exercise — but not right before bed. Exercise promotes good sleep, but if it is done too close to bedtime, it can act as a stimulant.

How to Protect Your Talent

If people on your teams seem to be sleep-deprived, or if you think they may be candidates for burnout, there are things you can do to help. Here are components of sleep-friendly organization practices:

  1. Provide sleep education. There is a real lack of knowledge about the role of sleep in health. Organizations can address this gap by providing basic sleep education. Challenge the culture of sleep deprivation.
  2. Encourage role models. Instead, top leadership and different ambassadors have a role to play in communicating the message that sleep supports the performance and well-being of leaders and the organization as a whole.
  3. Support boundaries between time for work and time for leisure. This entails allowing for transition time between home and work and supporting unavailability during vacations.
  4. Encourage sleep at work! Forget the notion of “don’t sleep on the job.” Instead, send the message that sleep is valued and leads to optimal performance. Provide nap rooms, energy pods, or comfortable chairs, and don’t forget to educate employees about how to best benefit from such resources. In fact, if you don’t show employees how to benefit, you’ll find these resources unused.
  5. Accommodate schedules. Different individuals work better at different times (morning larks versus night owls). When possible and practical, consider offering flexible hours and telecommuting to allow employees to work when they are most likely to function at their best. Put the spotlight on outcomes and impact, rather than hours worked or responsiveness to texts, emails, or collaborative forums.

A few consistent changes to support better sleep can often make a big difference for individuals and help organizations maintain a capable, high-performing pool of talent.

To learn more about our research on the sleep habits, read our new white paper, Tired at Work: A Roadblock to Effective Leadership.

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