The link between leadership and sleep

A lot of business leaders admit that they don’t get enough sleep at least four nights a week. A recent article in Harvard Business Review by Nick van Dam (McKinsey) and sleep expert Els van der Helm explores the link between sleep and leadership. It also offers a few solutions to improve both individual well-being and organizational efficiency.

Link between sleep & organizational leadership

It’s long been known that all leadership behavior relies on the prefrontal cortex that directs the higher-order cognitive processes, such as problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, etc. Neuroscientists indicate that although other brain areas can cope relatively well with too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. Basic visual and motor skills deteriorate when people are deprived of sleep, but not nearly to the same extent as higher-order mental skills.

Operating with a strong orientation to results. Research has shown that after +/- 17 to 19 hours of wakefulness individual performance on a range of tasks is equivalent to that of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. That’s the legal drinking limit in many countries. After approx. 20 hours of wakefulness, this same person’s performance equals that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1%.

Solving problems effectively. Sleep is beneficial for a host of cognitive functions that help us solve problems effectively and the ability to come up with innovative and creative ideas. One study has shown that a good night’s sleep leads to new insights: participants who enjoyed one were twice as likely to discover a hidden shortcut in a task as those who didn’t.

Seeking out different perspectives. A wealth of scientific studies have highlighted the impact of sleep on all three stages of the learning process: before learning, to encode new information; after learning, in the consolidation stage, when the brain forms new connections; and before remembering, to retrieve information from memory. These processes are critical to the ability to seek, encode, and consolidate different perspectives.

Supporting others. To help other people, you must first understand them. Doing so may require interpreting the emotions on their faces or their tone of voice. But in a sleep-deprived state, your brain is more likely to misinterpret these cues and overreact to emotional events, and you tend to express your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice.

What organizations can do

Nick van Dam gives two recommendations used at McKinsey:

  • Develop training programs focused on increasing awareness and creating long-lasting behavioral change. Blended learning programs on the importance of sleep can have a positive effect on well-being.
  • Evaluate and rework company policies to ensure that they encourage a good night’s sleep. Look at policies covering travel, email (e.g., blackout time on email, after which no emails can be sent), team working (creating tag teams that enable employees to hand work to each other across time zones), work-time limits (setting limits on hours or creating blackout periods), mandatory work-free vacations, napping rooms, and smart technology to improve sleep management.

Beyond having more rested and more effective leaders, another argument for focusing on sleep is that it prevents burnout in leaders. A recent Harvard Medical School study of senior leaders found that 96% reported experiencing at least some degree of burnout. One-third described their condition as extreme. A lack of sleep creates heightened emotional reactivity, and the experience of stress results in worse quality of sleep. In addition, poor sleep has been found to be a major predictor of reduced engagement at work. It’s time for organizations to find ways of countering the employee churn, lost productivity, and increased health care costs resulting from insufficient sleep.

Source: HBR.

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