“What keeps you awake at night?” is a popular question to ask executives. We surveyed 384 leaders about this topic, and the respondents reported on their sleep quality, including the kinds of conditions, thoughts, and ailments that interfere with their sleep.

A significant portion of our leadership sample reports tossing and turning at night — nearly one in 3 said they have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week. There are certain sleep disturbances that, although annoying, are considered a normal part of life: pets, children, snoring partners, and loud noises. Also not surprising, there were also a number of people who are kept awake by physiological problems — breathing issues, waking up to go to the bathroom, pain, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and menopause.

But we found that often troubles with sleep accompany issues at work. Here are 2 of these areas:

1. Work Related Stress

People are not just taking work home with them. They are also taking it to bed. Of those surveyed, one in 4 reported that work-related thoughts often interfere with their sleep. Work looms large in people’s minds, whether it’s 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. For example, one executive told us: “If I am trying to solve a complex problem, I tend to think about it constantly, including during sleep. If I briefly wake up, I might find it hard to shut that thinking off and get back to sleep.”

2. Dissatisfaction with Work-Life Balance

When we probed deeper into how work-related issues disturb sleep, we found much of it had to do with how leaders experienced the boundaries between work and personal life. We found that unhappiness with how some people 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 were at work or not, were also more likely to have symptoms of insomnia and trouble sleeping. This effect was present even when we accounted for lifestyle factors that we know can influence sleep quality, such as age, exercise, and even caffeine consumption. Being unable to unwind from work is a serious impediment to sleep. In turn, poor sleep can impair memory, learning, and emotion regulation, all of which can make psychological struggles even worse.


Do any of these reasons for poor sleep resonate with you?

The findings are striking and call for a re-evaluation of how we view the dissolving boundaries between work and home. While many may appreciate the greater workplace flexibility that new technology brings, the price for this fluidity can be disturbed sleep. This isn’t just due to the constant notifications and blue-light emitting screens from our mobile devices (all which quite literally interrupt sleep), but also the ability of technology to keep work at the forefront of our minds. It means we are prevented from “switching off,” not just physically, but psychologically and emotionally. When work keeps us awake, we are unable to get the rest and recovery necessary for effective leadership and psychological well-being.

Download Sleep Well, Lead Well: How Better Sleep Can Improve Leadership, Boost Productivity, and Spark Innovation.

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