What if leaders were well rested?

Many executives and senior leaders are getting by on little rest, and see no way around it. In a hyper-connected culture, we try to squeeze out more and more from ourselves and others. We push for productivity, an edge, the next new thing. When it seems there are not enough hours in the day, something has to give, and often it’s sleep.

But sleep is not a luxury. Sleeping less reduces brain power, productivity, and the ability to communicate. It also diminishes concentration, lowers creativity, and impairs memory and motor skills — including people skills.

At a very simple level, 2 important things take place when you get a good night’s sleep:

  1. The sleeping brain processes and organizes information.
  2. The sleeping brain helps the body’s stress response switch off.

These 2 functions, in turn, have an effect on memory, decision-making, attitudes, innovation, and creativity throughout the whole day.

If leaders are well rested, they function at their best with better memories and stronger skills for making new and creative connections. They regulate emotions and engage with others more effectively. Stress decreases. The complexity of leading will be matched by the capability to respond with clarity, creativity and productivity.

Our research about being tired at work makes the case that senior leaders — and everyone else working in challenging, complex situations — need to get more sleep.

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The Connection Between Sleep and Work Performance

If leaders are well rested, they function at their best with better memories and stronger skills for making new and creative connections. They regulate emotions and engage with others more effectively. Stress decreases. The complexity of leading will be matched by the capability to respond with clarity, creativity, and productivity.

Lost sleep triggers moodiness, increases pressure and anxiety, and is related to a variety of serious health problems and increased healthcare costs.

Since a lack of sleep hinders leadership performance, it can put your organization at risk as a result. A recent study concluded that fatigue-related productivity losses cost an estimated $1,967 per employee annually. And it limits the ability to respond to complex organizational challenges.

A sleep-deprived workforce can cause significant damage to the organization. In the long term, it is equally dangerous to the individual — the Center for Disease Control notes that deficiencies in rest are linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

Bottom line: Managers, executives, and many others are working long and hard, dealing with complex issues and facing unknown challenges. Not sleeping enough limits the ability to respond to complex organizational challenges.

Help your leaders avoid burnout, and instead, burn bright with our online program, The Resilience Advantage, based on scientific principles and practical tools that can be applied right away.

Organizations Must Play a Role in Helping Leaders Get Better Sleep

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.

Many leaders we’ve worked with have voiced their concerns about their own fatigue and exhaustion, and the way it relates to the unspoken cultural norms in their workplace. One leader in our research survey on sleep and leadership told us, “Around me, I see too many people blitzed by long hours, stressful commutes, jet lag, poor diet, lack of exercise, and working while on holiday.” Many leaders report burning the candle late into the night and in the early morning hours, sacrificing rest to fit more in the day.

The expectation to burn the candle at both ends can often be linked to the culture within an organization, and the messages that are intentionally or unintentionally communicated throughout. That’s why it’s critical for organizations to take steps to improve the sleep-health of its workforce.

5 Practices for Sleep-Friendly Workplaces

Many organizations, such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Google, NASA, and Ben & Jerry’s have all integrated healthy sleep practices into their organizations. Here are 5 practices organizations can implement to be more sleep-friendly:

Infographic: 5 practices for sleep-friendly organizations - tips for improving sleep and work performance

  1. Provide sleep education. Create a “sleeping awareness” program or campaign to challenge the cultural notion that sleep is a waste of time or a weakness. The effort could stand on its own, or be a component of an employee wellness program or larger development initiative.
    • Introduce the idea that more work isn’t better work. Look for ways to question practices and assumptions that value hours worked more than impact and results.
    • Let people know that when they are tired, they’re less effective as leaders and managers. Encourage them to view sleep as a simple, easy, and cheap way to boost productivity and be more effective.
    • Share the science — people like to know that there’s evidence behind this recommendation. Share articles, tips, quizzes, and helpful links via existing employee communications channels.
  2. Encourage role models to push back on the 24/7 culture. Enlist senior executives to support your efforts, helping to communicate the message that sleep supports the performance and well-being of leaders and the organization as a whole.
    • Leaders who openly discuss waking up at 4 a.m. to begin work or send emails in the late hours of the night are influencing organizational culture and setting unhealthy expectations for others.
    • Meet with managers whose teams are especially prone to long hours and travel. Help them understand the value of sleeping more for themselves. Encourage them to tout sleep as a way to be more effective and support their employees in getting more rest.
    • In routine meetings or trainings, encourage senior leaders to bring up the sleep challenges that teams face and discuss possible solutions.
  3. Support boundaries between time for work and time for leisure. Factor sleep into policies and schedules. Alongside the culture and awareness messages, take a look at organizational policies and norms that may discourage rest and recovery time.
    • Allow for transition time between home and work, and support employee unavailability during vacations.
    • Review schedules, break times, and limits to hours or shifts.
  4. Encourage sleep at work. Really! Forget the notion of “don’t sleep on the job.” Instead, send the message that sleep is truly valued and leads to optimal performance at work.
    • Provide nap rooms, energy pods, or comfortable chairs, and don’t forget to educate employees about how best to leverage such resources.
    • Communicating about these resources is important. If you don’t actively encourage employees to take advantage, you’ll likely find these resources unused!
  5. Accommodate schedules. 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.
    • Consider time off after travel, and work with teams or departments to set norms for availability across time zones and technology or accessibility expectations.
    • Let departments pick a week each month to power down and get more sleep — some of the habits may stick.
    • Acknowledge the reality that people are overextended at work and in other areas of life. You can’t change this on your own or overnight, but you can play an important role in shifting the culture.

You can also learn more about steps that individuals can take to combat sleep deprivation in our article, 8 Leadership Practices to Optimize Your Sleep and Productivity.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

It’s important to foster a culture where your people understand the connection between sleep and work performance and create a culture that values of sleep, recovery, and other resilience practices. Our online resilience program, The Resilience Advantage, takes a practical, scientific, and application-based approach that allows your leaders to avoid burnout, and instead, burn bright. 

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