Sleep is a biological necessity, part of the regenerative life support system that enables us to function, grow and thrive. Yet, across the planet, we are increasingly sleep-deprived, so much so that insufficient sleep is now considered a public health crisis with far-reaching economic consequences to nations and employers alike.
If your purpose as a leader is to uplift human potential and performance, then promoting sleep—and its cousins, rest and recovery—should be at the top of your wellness list.
Leading researchers agree: Quality sleep helps us maintain peak physical and mental performance. It impacts our ability to live well and work well in numerous ways.
SLEEP CAN ENHANCE WELLNESS FOR YOU, YOUR COWORKERS AND FAMILY MEMBERS
Physical Health—Better sleep can lessen mortality risks as well as the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sleep also helps our bodies with cell repair and immune function, thermoregulation, metabolic regulation and hormone control and release. Plus, deep restorative sleep is essential for removing the metabolic waste that builds up over the course of the day, a waste that scientific circles are starting to link with Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain Function—Good sleep can improve learning and memory, decision-making, creativity, adaptability and problem-solving as well as our psychomotor and cognitive speed and attention. When we lack sleep, we may have trouble focusing and concentrating, become easily confused, make risky or faulty decisions, and have slower reaction times; even moderate sleep deprivation can impair our mental performance as if we were legally intoxicated.
Stress & Resilience—Nearly all mood and anxiety disorders are linked with some kind of sleep disruption; those of us with insomnia are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Five-hour sleep nights, even for one week, are associated with increased fatigue, stress, mental exhaustion, tension and anxiety and mood disturbances. Sleep also impacts our resilience, especially in highly stressful or traumatic situations. Our emotional bandwidth (and happiness overall) narrows when we lack rejuvenating sleep. On the other hand, the brain chemicals associated with deep sleep tell the body to produce less stress-related hormones, making good sleep a buffer from burnout.
Relationships—When we’re sleep-deprived, we are more likely to misattribute harmful intent to others at work and home, plus express more negativity and emotional reactivity as well as less empathy. We are also more apt to hang on to our gender and racial biases. Shelly Ibach, the CEO of Sleep Number, goes so far as to say, “If we can improve people’s sleep, we can make this a kinder world. When we’re well-rested, we’re more present in our interactions. We take more time to listen. We’re more available. And presence leads to kindness.”
Work Effectiveness—According to a recent study, when we have sleep troubles, we are likely to experience more work absences, lower performance ratings and higher health care costs. We may also feel internally depleted and less engaged at work. The cost to employers can be enormous. One study found fatigue-related productivity losses amount to $1,976 per employee annually. Plus, inadequate rest can lead to more deviant, abusive and unethical behavior and erode the higher-order leadership skills—from problem-solving and achieving results to seeking different perspectives and supporting others—that fuel well-run organizations.
ENHANCE WELLBEING—AND PERFORMANCE
In our always-on workplaces, sleep, rest and recovery are often not valued. Use these tools to make sleep a wellbeing and performance-enhancer in your organization.
• Assess sleep health. Ask your coworkers to rate their sleep health with this simple sleep assessment by the University of Pittsburgh. (For a deeper assessment, check out the Pittsburgh Quality Sleep Index or the Sleep Hygiene Assessment by WebMD.)
• Make better sleep a priority. Encourage colleagues and family to limit caffeine intake at least six hours before sleep. Create rituals, such as a relaxing mindfulness practice, to cue your body that it’s time to sleep. Avoid screen time before bedtime. If possible, add circadian lighting to your home, where light is brighter when it’s time to wake up and dimmer and warmer when it’s time to rest. Finally, consider tech support, such as sleep apps that limit blue light or provide jet-lag minimizing solutions.
• Use sleep as a tool for creative insight. The mental restructuring that a good night’s sleep provides can help work through thorny problems with greater creativity and ease. Practice what visionaries do: Proactively use theta brain waves to your advantage by doing this problem-solving exercise as you start to wake up but while you are still in that half-sleep state.
• Co-opt rest habits from cultures around the world. The Japanese teach us inemuri, the art of sleeping anywhere; Greeks relish their midday quiet time, mesimeri; the Netherland’s niksen is the practice of doing nothing; and Islamic traditions value sleep as a sign of greatness. During a face-to-face meeting or videoconference with your team, explore how rest and recovery can be an integral part of the work culture.
• Schedule teamwork with rejuvenation in mind. Be aware of local time zones when orchestrating global conference calls, and implement email blackout times to help employees disengage from work at night. Build in productivity-boosting breaks during the workday. If your organization requires customer responsiveness 24/7 or teamwork across time zones, explore ways to structure work around the circadian rhythm.
• Cultivate a sleep-friendly organization. For example, circulate neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s Sleep or Die video or these TED Talks to help your organization understand how sleep affects performance. Embed training on sleep management in your employee wellness and engagement programs. Encourage flexible travel policies so employees can book flights that allow for a good night’s sleep. Institute a healthy sleep policy and provide nap pods or rooms to help employees alleviate sleepiness and fatigue. Plus, incentivize employees to take vacations—and truly disconnect from work.