Should we sleep to lead?

Should we sleep to lead?
April 28, 2017 awbfus17ery4

If there is one thing that we all have in common, it’s that we all need sleep.

However in today’s 24/7, ‘always connected’ world it is not surprising that many of us do not get enough of it. According to the NHS one in three of us do not hit the daily target of 8 hours, which, in most cases, is put down to stress, computers and taking work home with us. In this blog, we are focusing on understanding the importance of sleep and the link it holds to effective leadership.

In today’s fast paced society it is not surprising that so many of us find it hard to ‘switch off’ and allow the time to mentally repair, ready for another day at work; with the constant e-mails and daily demands during the day followed by the active social media world by night.

The important link between sleep and leadership

As leaders we know that we should try to stay healthy with our diet and nutrition, but now is the time to start taking our sleep habits seriously. Awbery’s Business Development Director, Mary Sisson, explains how she was a classic ‘early bird who didn’t need much sleep’ and would rarely hit the daily target of 8 hours sleep at night.

“I was often caught up checking e-mails just before bed, hence not giving myself time to wind down to give my brain any time to relax and recover from the day. However, through reading the research and listening to experts in the subject of sleep, it was a wake-up call, realising the seriousness and impact of consciously getting less sleep than is recommended. As part of my personal journey into improving my overall wellbeing as a person and as a leader, I seriously challenged myself on my sleep ‘routine’.”

Vicki Culpin, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and a member of the Ashridge Leadership Team, was recently a guest speaker on one of Awbery’s Fit to Lead programmes and believes that sleep is crucial to top professional performance. Vicki believes that people can be good at non-demanding tasks when they are sleep ‘deprived’, but executive function is seriously impaired when it comes to dealing with the ambiguous or unpredictable. In a sleep-deprived state your mind is much more likely to misinterpret or misjudge, which is surely a chance that we cannot take in the decisions that need to be made, promptly and efficiently.

A sleep deprived mind is much less likely to solve problems effectively as it has not received the cognitive recovery time that is necessary. Studies have shown that moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments equivalent to those of alcohol intoxication. Like alcohol, sleep exhaustion slows reaction time, decreases awareness, impairs judgment and increases your risk of crashing.

It is not socially acceptable to make key decisions after a few glasses of wine, so we should seriously be considering the effects of sleep deprivation, too.

What can we do?

Many organisations still hold the thought that long hours are seen as ‘getting the job done’ and although this may be true to an extent, we must wonder how long this view can be sustained long-term by any organisation before a significant drop in productivity and increased rate of employees ‘burning out’, and in turn, being out of the business due to stress or anxiety.

There are recent reports that the Netherlands are set to introduce a 6 hour working day in a bid to increase productivity and to make people happier. Linus Feldt, CEO of app development company Fillimundus, states,

“To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable.”

We are by no means suggesting a 6 hour working day is the answer for all organisations, however it’s a possible sign that productivity could be inspired with a shorter working day, or at least a reduction in overtime.

Awbery would agree with Vicki Culpin, who strongly believes in enlightening employees with the knowledge of sleep.

“Now managers of course can’t dictate what time their team go to bed. But what you can do is help raise people’s awareness of the important role sleep has to play – and make sure that your workplace practices are not inadvertently leading people into bad habits.”

There are steps that can be taken by organisations to raise the awareness of sleep within their wellbeing strategy. McKinsey have published several articles on the importance of sleep and have suggested a number of recommendations on how organisations can improve the quality of sleep to ensure that leaders attain the highest performance levels. These include:

Develop training programmes focused on increasing awareness and creating long lasting behavioural change.
Evaluate and rework company policies to ensure that they encourage – or at least don’t discourage a good night’s sleep. Look at policies covering travel, e-mail, work time limits, etc.
Sleep can often be taken for granted, but if we can begin to engage organisations and employees with the benefits of allowing themselves to ‘switch off’ and to make small behavioural changes that allow for a better night’s sleep, it can only be a positive thing. If they are armed with the right knowledge they can make the small changes to behaviour that could have a big impact on their performance.

Awbery’s latest Fit to Lead programme aims to equip leaders with the knowledge and skills to improve wellbeing through mind, body and leadership. The importance of sleep is a key factor within this, as well as the role that leadership plays in creating and influencing organisational culture.

If you would like any more information on the Fit to Lead programme, please contact or call 01283 703828.