By Jacqueline Wong, PhD

If you’ve ever shown up to work after a bad night’s sleep, you know that poor sleep can reduce your ability to focus, your drive to innovate, and even your positive regard for colleagues. These effects only become amplified when leaders don’t get enough sleep—sleep-deprived leaders can put the success and well-being of their teams at risk. While sleep is not traditionally a primary concern for leaders, research over the past decade or so has demonstrated how critical it is for leaders to sleep well—and to encourage their employees to sleep well too. 

Sleep and Work

On average, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but on any given day, about 30% of Americans report sleeping less than 6 hours the night before. By extension, this means that almost one-third of employees are coming to work sleep-deprived. 

In addition to the potential health and non-work effects of poor or inadequate sleep, we know from multiple studies that sleep deprivation is detrimental to important employee and organizational outcomes, including performance, productivity, punctuality, engagement, ethical workplace behavior, and workplace safety. These effects occur primarily because sleep diminishes cognitive functioning, motor functioning, emotional regulation, and mood. 

What About Sleep for Leaders?

Beyond the effects of sleep deprivation for all employees, the sleep deprivation of leaders has the potential to trickle down to employees and seep outward into the organization. Multiple research studies have demonstrated the link between poor sleep and ineffective leadership—or on the flip side, the link between quality rest and effective leadership. For example, recent studies published in the journals Sleep and Applied Cognitive Psychology found that sleep deprivation diminishes cognitive functions, decision-making abilities, and emotional intelligence, all of which are essential for effective leadership. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that sleep-deprived leaders are viewed as less charismatic (inspiring followers through intellectual stimulation, mutual respect, and positive emotion) by their employees.  

Given the importance of sleep and the concerning lack of sleep for working adults, these are some relatively simple ways to improve sleep: 

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.  
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool (60-67 degrees). 
  • Create a routine to wind down for bedtime. 
  • Avoid electronic devices and especially blue light around bedtime. 
  • Avoid caffeine 3-7 hours before bedtime.  
  • Limit napping.

Sleep Leadership

Beyond getting quality sleep and leading well-rested, part of being a good leader is making sure that what happens at work does not negatively affect employees’ sleep health. When leaders engage in the following “sleep leadership” behaviors, their employees sleep better and are thus better equipped to be productive, creative, collaborative, and safe at work. 

First and foremost, leaders can be clear and vocal about their support for employee health, including sleep health. One study found that when leaders de-value sleep (e.g., make prideful comments about not needing or getting much sleep), their employees are more likely to get poor sleep and, in turn, are also more likely to behave unethically at work. Thus, role modeling the belief that sleep is valuable can positively impact the health of employees and organizations.  

Another way to support employee sleep is through flexibility. Flexibility can take many forms (e.g., where, when, or how much employees work), but they all allow employees to manage their work and home responsibilities in a way that works best for them (and by extension, for their sleep health needs). 

Lastly, leaders can carefully evaluate the demands placed on employees, in terms of both workload, which might cause overtime hours, and other demands, such as expectations to be available to respond to incoming messages during non-work hours. Leaders can redistribute work tasks, reschedule meetings, and create clear boundaries for nonwork time in order for employees to be able to disconnect from work and spend time managing family and home responsibilities. 

Work stress and work obligations can often keep people up at night, but good leaders will do their best to minimize these effects—for the good of the employees, their teams, and the organization. 

Identifying the policies and systems that will work for your organizations, teams, and leaders takes thought and dedication, but ultimately, taking the time to do so will pay off in the long run. Our organizational effectiveness consulting company helps clients walk through and solve complex business issues every day. If you’re interested in exploring what our services could look like for you, contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

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