The science is increasingly clear: sleep matters to your mental, physical, and emotional health. People feel better and function better when they get adequate sleep. Without enough sleep, people have less energy, their self-awareness and interpersonal savvy decrease, and problem-solving and decision-making abilities decline — all things that get in the way of quality work and effective leadership.

Although sleep is a personal and individual matter, the costs of sleep deprivation are paid by organizations. If leaders are shortchanging sleep, packing more into their days without rest and recovery, they aren’t performing at their best. Instead, they may be compromising team effectiveness; making poor decisions; and struggling to innovate, collaborate, and manage complexity.

Yet few empirical research studies have examined the sleep habits of leaders in organizations. Do they get enough sleep to perform at their best? If not, why not?

In this paper, we take a look at the sleep patterns reported by leaders and what these patterns tell us about organizational factors affecting sleep. A survey that we conducted revealed:

  • Leaders don’t sleep enough, but some struggle more than others.
  • Leaders would like to get more sleep, but work often keeps them awake.
  • Leaders don’t sleep differently from other people, but they are assumed to sleep less.

Our findings also suggest that organizations can play a role in 3 areas:

  • Educating leaders about best sleep practices
  • Countering the “workplace warrior” culture
  • Supporting the ability to detach from work

Supporting healthy sleep habits is an overlooked way organizations can nourish, develop, and protect their people and maintain a capable, high-performing pool of talent.

Sleep and Leadership: What’s the Connection?

Experts around the globe are begging people to get more rest. And with good reason. The scientific evidence of the importance of sleep is staggering — and yet, most people don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night. According to Harvard Medical School, even sleeping one hour less than what’s needed can have a negative impact, and sleeping longer on the weekend doesn’t prevent problems caused by lack of sleep during the week. As a result, many people are living and working in a sleep-deprived state. In fact, 23% of employees in the U.S. report being too sleepy to fully function (Kessler et al., 2011).

During sleep, significant work takes place — vital processes that are associated with a variety of functions impacting physical, cognitive, and emotional health. Not getting enough sleep is associated with the risk of infections, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and lower life expectancy (Epstein, 2010).

Sufficient sleep lets people conserve and restore energy, build memories, and take in new information. Sleep improves cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and the ability to make connections and inferences (Nowack, 2017). Sleep allows people to regulate their emotions and lower stress levels. Notably, sleep impacts exactly the human capacities that are most important for leadership effectiveness: creative problem solving, interpersonal savvy, sound decision making, self-awareness, and energy (van Dam & van der Helm, 2016).

Well-rested leaders are better equipped to be open to others’ views, juggle different mindsets and perspectives, demonstrate learning agility, and accomplish complex work through collaboration.

In contrast, poor sleep leads to:

  • Diminished concentration
  • Impaired memory
  • Reduced ability to communicate
  • Lowered creativity
  • Increased moodiness, stress, and anxiety
  • Difficulty responding to complex organizational challenges

When people are tired, their energy reserves are low and self-control suffers. They are more likely to succumb to impulsive desires and compromised decisions (Harrison & Horne, 2000).

Organizations need leaders with the skills and capacities to engage others, steer through challenges, and manage change and complexity — which is why they provide leadership education, career experiences, and developmental opportunities to emerging and experienced leaders. But for leaders to be high performers, on top of their game, and functioning at their very best — consistently — they need sleep, too.

Additional Author
Elena Svetieva, PhD, is an emotion scientist and researcher at Fors March Group. Her work focuses on how individuals emotionally respond to messages and situations, and the subsequent implications for their behavior. Elena holds a PhD in communications from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and has completed postdoctoral research fellowships at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business & Economics, and at CCL.

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