Sleep Well, Lead Better, and Keep Yourself Happier

Lack of Sleep Can Create More Problems in Your Company than You Realize. Sleeping better will keep you happier and your business running better.

Friday, June 7th 2019 in Management by Emily Snell
Sleep Well, Lead Better, and Keep Yourself Happier

How much sleep does your average person get each night? While eight hours is recommended, most people don't realize that it can be difficult to get the math right when work, family, and other commitments take up more than 16 hours each day. Maybe you think you can do fine with four to five hours of sleep per night. Perhaps you have gotten used to flying red-eye, changing time zones, and pulling an all-nighter. Your sleep deprivation might be a badge you wear with pride.

This may sound familiar to you. Despite the fact that sleep advocates are growing, led by Jeff Bezos and Arianna Huffington, a substantial number of Americans, including U.S. executives, don't seem to get the sleep they need. The latest data from National Health Interview Survey shows that Americans are getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, which is the minimum amount needed to get a restful night. This percentage has increased from 22% in 1985 and 29% in 2012. A Center for Creative Leadership study found that 42% of leaders get less than six hours of sleep per night.

You likely already know the benefits of sleep and the risks of not getting it. Sleep is essential for us to retain and process memories, recharge our brains with glucose and eliminate beta-amyloid, which can cause cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer's patients. Insufficient sleep or fatigue can lead to poor judgement, loss of self-control and impaired creativity. There are also secondary effects that may not be as well-known in organizations. My research has shown that sleep deprivation does not just affect individual performance. It also impacts the productivity and experiences of managers.

How can this knowledge be used to change behavior? For leaders who are sleep-deprived, the first step is to recognize how detrimental your fatigue can be to others. Follow these simple, practical and research-backed tips to help you get better sleep, perform at your best, and bring out all the potential in those around you.

How can sleep affect work?

Sleep supports almost every system of the body . Our eyes shut, our breathing slows down, and our muscles relax when we fall asleep. The brain switches to a sleep state and begins the many biological processes that replenish our bodies and minds. Sleep is essential for our cardiovascular system and immune systems. It also helps us think clearly, learn new information and manage emotions.

It is no secret that Americans sleep less than they should. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults should get 7 to 9, but almost a third of Americans sleep less than 6 hours each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control4. The effects of fatigue can be felt at the workplace. A 2007 study5 of U.S. workers5 showed that nearly 38% experienced fatigue during work the previous two weeks.

Working while tired can have a significant impact on job performance. Processes throughout the body will not function optimally if they don't get enough sleep. The brain becomes overworked and can lead to cognitive impairments, slower physical reactions, and emotional drain. These side effects can have a negative impact on your day. Chronic sleep deprivation may have more severe consequences, such as an increased risk of obesity and heart disease, cognitive decline, dementia, and other health problems.

Leaders who ignore the importance of sleep can have a negative impact on not only their emotions, but also the behavior of their team. Lorenzo Lucianetti, Eli Awtrey, Gretchen Spreitzer, and I conducted a series of studies of what we termed "sleep devaluation"--scenarios in which leaders communicate to subordinates that sleep is unimportant. Leaders may set an example by boasting about how much sleep they get or by sending work e mails at 3:00 am. Or they might directly influence employees' sleeping habits by encouraging them to work during their normal hours. Our studies showed that employees listen to these cues and adapt their behavior accordingly. Particularly, those who are subordinates to leaders who encourage poor sleeping habits get 25 less hours of sleep per night than those whose bosses value it. They also report that their sleep quality is worse.

Another, perhaps more important finding from this research was the fact that leaders who devalue sleep could cause their followers to be less ethical. According to the research, bosses who consistently avoided rest were less likely to encourage their subordinates to do the right things than other managers. This is not a case of sleep-deprived leaders giving harsher ratings. It's possible that employees were acting in less moral ways due to their work environment or sleep deprivation. In past studies, we have shown that a lack of sleep can directly be linked to ethical lapses.

Effects of Sleep Loss

It can be more difficult to maintain focus and attention when you are tired. It can be difficult to focus on long tasks or those that require concentration if you feel tired and drowsy. This may be due to the microsleeps effect, which are brief (0.5 to 15 seconds) episodes of nonresponsiveness that can cause attention lapses.

Due to faster reaction times, people who are tired are more likely to make errors or omissions. Tired employees may take longer to respond to critical situations and are more likely to make mistakes. Impaired response times in some professions can mean that you miss important calls or don't respond quickly to conversations. Slow reaction times in other professions, such as doctors, first responders and truck drivers, can make the difference between life or death.

People who work while tired can feel more angry, irritable, and susceptible to stress. In stressful situations, emotional responses are amplified, which can lead to inappropriate reactions at inappropriate times. The stress and irritability experienced at work can carry over to home, making it harder for people to fall asleep. Chronic sleep loss can lead to more severe mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. This can make it more difficult to be productive at work.


Try out a few of these solutions

There are many ways leaders can improve their sleep quality and quantity. These solutions are not only well-known but are often overlooked. These include a consistent bedtime, wake-up time, and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine too close to bedtime. Relaxation and mindfulness meditation can help you fall asleep easier.

You might need to make changes if you are experiencing sleep problems at work. You can improve your work performance, increase your productivity, and feel more motivated throughout the day by getting consistent, high-quality sleep. These are some tips to improve your work performance.

  • Reexamine Your Priorities: Many people sacrifice sleep to complete work, watch TV, or socialize. You may be justifying staying up late to finish work, watch TV or socialize. Now you need to ask yourself if the benefits of sleep deprivation are worth it. You might need to review your priorities and establish a clear boundary between work and personal.
  • There is some room for improvement: If you are experiencing sleep problems due to your job, it might be worth speaking with your boss, labor union or human resources department. Research has shown that employees who are able to allow for psychological detachment during work hours and support their need for consistent sleep can improve their concentration and productivity throughout the day.
  • Realistically: Not everyone has the ability to change their work schedule. Many people have to work shifts that are not in line with their ideal sleep-wake cycles. These tips will help you stay awake at night if there isn't enough room in your schedule.
  • You can improve your sleep hygiene by establishing good sleep habits and promoting restful sleep. You can create a personal plan to optimize your bedroom, establish a consistent sleeping schedule, adjust your bedtime routine and eliminate any bad habits that may be affecting your ability to sleep.
  • Talk to your doctor: Sleep specialists and doctors are trained in treating sleep disorders. Your doctor will help you develop a plan to improve your sleep and give personalized tips on managing work-related fatigue.

Naps can increase cognitive processing speed, reduce errors and improve stamina.

Leaders often neglect two tools. The first is the treatment of sleep disorders. According to some estimates, 30% of Americans suffer from insomnia and 5% have sleep apnea. These issues are often not diagnosed and treated in the majority of cases. Sleep apnea can be diagnosed if you have an overweight neck, snore, have a thick neck and feel tired at night. Although spouses and partners are most likely to be the first to notice symptoms, an official diagnosis is usually made following a sleep study that measures brain waves and oxygen levels. A continuous positive airway pressure mask (CPAP), which is worn at night, may be recommended. These devices keep the throat and nasal airways open, greatly helping patients suffering from sleep apnea.

For insomnia sufferers, although they may be aware of the problem, they may not know how it can be fixed. Jared Miller, Sophie Bostock, and I reviewed an online program that employs cognitive behavioral therapy to treat this disorder. 

Napping is another way to get more rest. Leaders often view nap time as a time to relax and not work. Research clearly shows that even a 20-minute nap can result in meaningful restoration and improves work quality. A short nap can improve cognitive processing, reduce errors, and increase endurance for difficult tasks later in the afternoon. 

Naps are a common and valued activity in many cultures other than the United States. In Japan, naps at work are often viewed positively as inemuri. In Spain, midday siestas are a part of daily work life. Some American leaders are now beginning to embrace this type of rest. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, is a nap proponent, and organizations such as Google and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have nap pods for employees, understanding that 20 minutes of downtime can make people more effective and productive for many more hours that day.

Even if you don't get enough sleep, as a leader you must encourage good sleep habits. Your employees will be watching to see what you are doing. Do not bristle about how little sleep you get, as this could signal to your subordinates that their sleep needs should be prioritized. Use a delayed delivery option if you have to send an email at 3:00 AM. Don't be a hero if you have to work all night on a project.

Look to Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite ("It is not worth depriving oneself of sleep for an extended time, no matter what pressing matters may seem"); Amazon's Bezos ("Eight-hour sleep makes a huge difference for me, so I try to make that a priority for me"); Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global who wrote a whole book about the topic.

You will be a better leader if you make sleep a priority and inspire your team to do better. You don't have to sacrifice your sleep for the benefit of your team.

About the Author

Emily Snell

Emily is a contributing marketing author at where she regularly consults on content strategy and overall topic focus. Emily has spent the last 12 years helping hyper growth startups and well-known brands create content that positions products and services as the solution to a customer's problem.

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