By Dr. Elena Svetieva, Dr. Marian Ruderman, and Dr. Cathleen Clerkin
Meet Sue, a charismatic CEO. She addresses all employees in a fiscal year-end meeting. In lauding their hard work and efforts, she comments on her delight in reading the budget reports upon awaking at 4 a.m. that morning.
Then there is Jose, a rising star in his organization. He prides himself on being available to his team day or night, and tries to use all his spare moments in the day thinking of new strategic initiatives and better ways to solve current problems.
Finally there’s Alexandra, a leader of a small team of motivated high performers. Alexandra wants to lead a full, productive life, getting up early to exercise and plan a full workday. She helps her family start their days, leads her team at work effectively, and then volunteers with a local charity. Exhausted, Alexandra slumps into bed late at night and is comforted by the idea that she has not let anyone down.
Do you identify with Sue, Jose, or Alexandra? Do their sleep patterns seem familiar? If yes, how well is this style working for you? If not, do these leaders sound like anyone you know?
Myths and Facts
Many applaud the sleeping habits of individuals like Sue, Jose, and Alexandra. Indeed, many people believe that top leaders set good examples for their teams by demonstrating a strong work ethic and showing that they work late into the night and early in the morning. After all, we need to make sacrifices to get ahead, and perhaps this might just impact the number of hours we spend nestled under the covers.
Hard work and long hours equal success, right? Actually, these are all false assumptions. Here is a breakdown of why that’s the case.
Myth #1: Cutting down on sleep is one way to be more productive.
Belief behind the myth: Sleeping less provides time to progress on our work. Hustle, hustle, hustle at all costs!
Reality: 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.
It diminishes concentration, impairs memory, reduces the ability to communicate, lowers creativity, triggers moodiness, and increases stress. In contrast to the myth, sleep deprivation can hold you back. In the long term, it does not push you forward.
Myth #2: Top executives sleep less than other employees to stay ahead.
Belief behind the myth: High-performing executives with many demands on their plates are sleeping less than the average employee — it’s part of the job. To reach the top levels of an organization, you need to sacrifice sleep. Once there, you need to maintain this lifestyle to keep up with the demands of work.
Reality: We conducted a global survey of leaders’ sleep experiences. We asked 384 men and women — from professionals in non-managerial positions to C-level executives — all about their sleep habits, patterns, rituals, and problems.
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 reality is different.
In fact, 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.
Sleep Challenges in a Complex Business Environment
Today’s work environment requires a new type of leader. It is no longer enough for leaders to be qualified and knowledgeable. Leaders must be focused, adaptable, and resilient in order to be effective amid the increasingly distracting and chaotic organizational world.
There is a clear correlation between the benefits of good sleep and the needs of our current business environment. Restorative sleep is a critical component to reaching optimal leadership potential and the easiest way to improve productivity.
Unfortunately, there are barriers to getting a good night’s rest. We asked leaders what keeps them awake at night.
A significant portion of our leadership sample reports tossing and turning nightly — nearly 1 in 3 said they have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week. There are certain disturbances that, although annoying, are considered a normal part of life: pets, children, snoring partners, and loud noises.
Also not surprising, there were a number of people whose sleeping is interrupted by physiological problems. However, troubled sleep often accompanies issues related to our careers.
Of the respondents, 25% reported that work-related thoughts often interfere with their sleep. Work looms larger in people’s minds, whether it be going over past events or planning and worrying about upcoming tasks. For many leaders, problems from the day resurface in the middle of the night.
When we probed deeper into how work-related issues disturb rest, we found much of it had to do with how leaders experienced the boundaries between work and personal life. We found that dissatisfaction with how leaders manage the transition between work and personal time is associated with sleep problems.
For example, individuals who were more likely to feel like they are always working, whether they are at work or not, were also more likely to have symptoms of insomnia. Being unable to unwind from work is a serious impediment to sleep.
What Can You Do?
Individually, here are 8 practices to help you reach the point of restorative sleep:
- 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 the hours of sleep you need. Although some people need less and some more, the average adult needs 7 to 8 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
- Create a relaxing environment. Adults are great at creating relaxing environments for children, but not everyone realizes that they should do the same for themselves. Adjust the temperature, lights, and sounds in the room so they are as conducive to sleeping as possible. Some people have a relaxing ritual such as taking a warm bath or applying lotion. Use earplugs or blackout curtains if necessary.
- 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.
- 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.
- Disconnect from your electronic devices. Park your devices before going to bed. The combination of constant connectivity and blue light is known to interfere with sleeping.
- Put your work aside before you go to bed. Ruminating about work won’t help anything. Mindfulness practices and other stress-reduction techniques are helpful for learning how to relax your mind.
- 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.
- Understand and honor your sleep needs. We all have a particular chronotype based on our circadian rhythms. Some of us are night owls and do our work best late at night, while others are morning larks and most productive in the morning. Honor your natural inclinations as it relates to your chronotype and put yourself in the best position to thrive. Pay attention to what times of day you feel most alert and plan to do the most difficult or challenging tasks during those “on” times.
What You Can Do as an Organization
Uber, PwC, Google, NASA, and Ben & Jerry’s have all integrated healthy sleep practices into their organizations. Here are components of sleep-friendly organization practices:
- 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.
- Encourage role models. This article began with an example of Sue, the leader of the organization who “innocuously” shared that she woke up at 4 a.m. to begin work. This completely sets the wrong example. 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Accommodate schedules. As highlighted earlier, 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.
As you think about sleep and optimal results — both at the individual and organizational levels — arm yourself with statistics and facts rather than preconceived myths. Then put in place the related habits and mechanisms. If you lack clarity about next steps, consider sleeping on it!