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Sleep and leadership – the uncanny relationship


Employees in OECD countries, such as Mexico and South-Korea, work an annual average of 2,237 hours and 2,079 hours respectively. Eventually, this translates into a decrease in actual hours slept. A recent report shows that approximately 30% of adults get an average of 6 hours or less of sleep in a 24-hour period. The National Institute of Health recommends that adults get 7-8 hours of sleep.

Sleeping less, apart from the already-known health problems, can dramatically impair performance. The Association for Psychological Science states that 5 hours of sleep in four consecutive nights affects one’s cognitive performance to the same degree as having a blood alcohol level of 0.06%, which for example, is way over the legal limit to drive in many countries.

Now that we’ve cleared this out of the way, let us see what all this has to do with leadership and leaders in general. First and foremost, how about we define what the key expected behavior from a leader is and how it is affected by one’s lack of sleep.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with cognitive actions, such as planning, organizing, problem solving or reasoning and the ensuing leadership behavior that relies on these actions, is highly affected by sleep or lack thereof. At one point in time, we all came across an executive that gave the impression of being disengaged, impatient with others, forgetful, uninspired or having difficulties with problem-solving.

High performance and top notch executive teams typically share four key traits:

  • A strong orientation towards results. This behavior is highly affected by the person’s attention and concentration levels, and sleep deprivation reduces the ability to focus and see the bigger picture.
  • Effective problem solving. A study has shown that a good night’s sleep increases creativity and innovative ideas, which help us solve problems more effectively. In addition to a good night’s sleep, taking a short nap of 30 minutes promotes creative problem solving and problems are twice as likely to be solved in comparison to not taking a nap.
  • Seeking out different perspectives. Sleep impacts the ability to encode new information, form new connections about it and more easily retrieve this new information from your memory. This process is crucial in a leader’s capability to seek out different perspectives, accurately weigh in their significance and prevent tunnel vision or cognitive bias.
  • Supporting others. In order to support others, a leader needs to first understand what their behavior suggests, by interpreting body language or facial expressions. However, in a sleep deprived state, the brain is most likely to misinterpret these subtle hints and the person will overreact to events and express feelings in a negative way or tone, and be less trustful of someone. This is probably mostly known as the boss who acts like in a very mean fashion, is abusive or creates problems in the workplace.


The role of the organization

Most organizations pay insufficient attention to promoting healthy rest schedules for their employees, despite the fact that research has shown us that employees lacking sleep engage in highly unethical behavior, exhibit low work engagement, are more prone to mistakes and unaware when they are making said mistakes, are less creative and have difficulties performing adequately. Organizations play an important role in turning this around through organizational policies, such as:

  1. Sleep management training programs, which emphasize the importance of sleep;
  2. Creating a system that enables an employee to easily transfer his work to an employee in a different time zone, i.e. the case of a multinational organization;
  3. Set black-out periods for incoming and outgoing e-mails;
  4. Provide spaces where employees can take a nap;
  5. Provide tips on applications that can assist in sleep management;
  6. Offering training and information on how to improve sleep quality.

By supporting the idea of sufficient sleep, organizations improve leadership performance and consequently, the overall health of the organization. More sleep enables leaders to make strategic decisions which lead the organization in the right direction and reduce the incidence of mistakes that cause profit losses.

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