The Sleeping Shepherd, lithograph by Jean-Baptiste Aubry-Lecomte (1787-1858) after a painting by Raymond Monvoisin (The French National Library, Paris)
Ideas for Leaders #257

The Importance of Sleep for Work

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Key Concept

According to this Idea, the science is clear: lack of sleep compromises brain processes and the skills needed for effective leadership. Executives — and indeed everyone — should get at least 7–9 hours sleep in order to perform at their best. Read on for some suggestions on how to create a culture that understands and values sleep in your organization.

Idea Summary

Executives should stop working at cross-purposes with the brain and get more sleep if they want to function at their best, say researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership. In a 2013 White Paper, Carol Connolly, Marian Ruderman and Jean Brittain Leslie state that lack of sleep can cause problems not just for you but for all employees; it can leave your organization vulnerable to safety and productivity gaps. They point to a study published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine which concluded that fatigue-related productivity losses can cost an organization approximately $2,000 per employee annually.

In order to explain the importance being well-rested, Connolly, Ruderman and Leslie discuss the stages we experience when we sleep: about every 90 minutes, we enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the most important part of our sleep cycle and lasts for 30–40 minutes. REM sleep — also known as the ‘brain delta wave state’ — is the deepest stage of sleep and allows the brain to process what has happened during the day, and lets the body and brain turn off its stress response.

During this stage, body development and tissue repair is stimulated, and the brain replenishes neurotransmitters that organize neural networks essential for remembering, learning, performance and problem solving. However, REM sleep only comes after our brains cycle through several stages of non-REM sleep; so if you get just 4–6 hours of sleep, chances are you are not be maximizing its essential benefits.

The result? Executives working long hours and dealing with important issues often find themselves limited in their ability to respond to such complex organizational challenges, simply because they have not gotten enough sleep.

Well rested leaders function at their best, with better memories and stronger skills for making new and creative connections. They can regulate emotions and engage more effectively with others. 

Business Application

So what can you do to maximize the benefits of sleep for you and your organization? Connolly, Ruderman and Leslie suggest pushing back on the 24/7 culture, and introducing the notion that more work is not necessarily better work; this involves questioning practices that value hours worked over impact and results. Also, get the word out about the benefits of sleep; share the science and let people know that when they are tired, they are less effective as leaders and managers.

They also suggest ‘smart sleep strategies’ which include avoiding excessive caffeine, alcohol and nicotine consumption, and exercising daily. To start with, test the ‘sleep more’ theory for yourself: get enough sleep each night and take naps and then ask yourself, are you more clearheaded and effective now? If so, spread the word.

Some companies are ahead of the game; for example, Google conducted a ‘sleep awareness’ program and has added ‘sleeping pods’ at its headquarters to facilitate brief naps at work. Essentially, these are ergonomically designed private spaces to encourage sleeping. Other sleep-friendly companies the researchers identify include CISCO, Capital Group and the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. 

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Idea conceived

  • October 2013

Idea posted

  • November 2013

DOI number



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