Sleep more, work better: tips on getting more zzz’s

Sleep deprivation is a problem of epic proportions among professionals globally, but it is often neglected by organizations. I know the impact. I struggled with it for years when work dominated my life, undermining my sleeping patterns and, ultimately, my performance.

During a decade-long period when sleep issues impacted every sphere of my life, I identified several potentially effective treatments for busy executives. Ultimately, the remedies did not lie solely in specialized assistance or tools related to sleep, but in adopting a holistic approach.

I changed my lifestyle with the help of a diet and fitness professional. I shifted my mindset and attitude toward work, my relationships with others and myself. These modifications helped eliminate my sleep issues – and transformed my life.

Here’s why the issue is critical for executives: Although other brain areas cope relatively well with insufficient sleep, the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive functioning, including all the higher-order cognitive processes such as planning and decision-making, is greatly affected, report neuroscientists.

The research drives it home. Insufficient sleep – 19 percent below recommended levels, according to one study – undercuts executives’ leadership behaviors and hurts their organizations’ financial performance. It adversely affects concentration, patience, enthusiasm and judgment. Adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best.

A McKinsey study of 196 business leaders found two-thirds were dissatisfied with the amount of sleep they get and 55 percent were unhappy with its quality. Over 80 percent said they received limited education from their organizations about the significance of sleep. Nearly half said they were expected to be available by email or phone for unreasonably long periods.

Here are some actions that organizations can take to help leaders perform at their peak:

  1. Hold training sessions that raise awareness of the issue and serve as a starting point for dealing with sleep issues.
  2. Adopt policies that help with sleep troubles, such as permitting alternative work schedules, discouraging forced overtime and ‘red eye’ flights so employees arrive at work rested, offering access to an exercise facility, and rewarding those who take their vacations and don’t work during them.
  3. Provide “nap pods” at work, switch off email servers between certain hours – say 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. – and install bright lights that help keep the brain alert.

But it’s also about taking care of yourself. Here are some steps you can take to get more and higher-quality sleep:

  1. Avoid using a smartphone or tablet for a couple of hours before going to bed.
  2. Read something relaxing that’s not work-related, and isn’t on a tablet, before bedtime. Reading helps the mind become distracted from daily stresses and worries that causes tension.
  3. Employ mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, to help you fall asleep or go back to sleep when you wake up during the night.
  4. Take an Epsom salt bath or a warm shower to prepare for sleep.
  5. Start the morning with meditation, beginning with five minutes and building up.
  6. Take a refreshing 30-minute nap in the early afternoon, or a 90-minute one to achieve a full sleep cycle.
  7. Watch your caffeine intake. It’s still in your system after six hours, so if you drink a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea at 2 p.m., the stimulation effect you get from the drink will still be half as much at 8 p.m.

Sleep matters, especially for executives whose decisions help determine an organization’s effectiveness.

Take a closer look at your schedule and habits to make sure you are getting the best sleep possible, and next time you find yourself needing a nap, take that snooze knowing you are helping yourself and your work performance.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice