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Published September 2, 2019
In 2018, organizations spent $366 billion on employee development. The investment in human capital is warranted, but research suggests that—within this investment—businesses are neglecting the most powerful, no-cost performance enhancer: Sleep.
In sports, experts suggest that the most consistent peak performers tend to also be those who consistently get enough high-quality sleep. This holds true for the world of work, too. As a recent article from Deloitte so aptly puts it: “You snooze, you win.”
Sleep relates to how we behave throughout the day, from what we eat to how well we can focus. Sleep impacts how we process our emotions, and how well we manage stress, which in turn impacts how we treat our colleagues. These fundamental sleep-related shifts in mindset and behaviors influence productivity, overall job performance, and our capacity for effective leadership. At scale, the impact of each employee’s sleep quality can critically impact the success of a business.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7–9 hours of sleep a night. But 20 percent of Americans sleep less than six hours per night. And 80 percent report struggling with sleep more than once a week, and waking up exhausted.
Sleep deprivation is common amongst modern humans, but it’s maladaptive. According to sleep scientist Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, “Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain.”
As a coach, I’ve heard so many achievement-oriented individuals say, “I could reach my goals if only I didn’t need to sleep.” The wish is understandable. Sleeping or attempting to sleep fills one-third of our lives.
The temptation to prioritize external tasks over healthy sleep extends to managers and organizations. Long work hours and staying plugged in outside of work is the norm. Nearly 20% of individuals work 12 hour days which makes it harder to fit in a full eight hours of sleep, especially considering that after-hours interaction with technology also disturbs sleep quality.
When working with leaders and individuals, I empathize with how hard it is, individually and organizationally, to truly support a non-negotiable eight hours of sleep. It means going against the grain, and potentially sacrificing the small “p” productivity of a single task or project, for the large “P” productivity of consistent sleep. It means consistently reminding oneself that the active and productive processes of the brain while sleeping are at least on par with the importance of (and arguably more important than) any single task.
But the unavoidable truth is that the need for sleep is undeniable, as vital as food and water, and even small deficits can have a big negative impact.
Many view sleep as a personal issue, which puts the onus purely on the individual to solve any struggles. But in fact, organizations play a tremendous role—for better or worse—in their employees’ sleep quality. The good news is there are many great resources filled with actionable advice for individuals, such as this helpful guide from the NY Times. Resources speaking to organizations are more limited.
Help your leaders prioritize the value of sleep with your organization with these six key strategies:
- Play the long game. Encourage direct managers to play the long game by not sacrificing their team’s sleep or well-being for the sake of short term, fleeting gains. In ESPN The Magazine, Henry Abbott writes, “Follow any marathon training program and you’ll be bombarded with science-based insight about how the most dramatically wrong way to train is to run 26 miles every day. Just working out more is the kind of thinking a middle school gym teacher might rightly offer a couch potato—even the most elite training programs advocate multiple easy days every week.” The same insight holds true for work. Constant sprints or marathons are ineffective. Sustainable success comes from strategic prioritization, working smarter not harder, and working with, not against, the science of peak performance.
- Incorporate sleep into L&D. As mentioned before, global Learning & Development (L&D) spend is $366 billion annually. Consider making sleep a topic of focus within your broader L&D investment. Episodic training focusing on knowledge transfer isn’t enough to drive behavior change. Instead, approaches must incorporate learning combined with ongoing personalized support. Given sleep can make or break other efforts to grow in other aspects of one’s career and life, BetterUp members can now add sessions with sleep specialists to their coaching program at no extra cost (learn more about our Extended Network here). Because sleep quality is influenced by so many factors, such as nutrition and work stress, improving sleep often requires assessing and working with the whole person. Pairing expert sleep consults with ongoing coaching means that members can receive the latest science-backed sleep-specific guidance, in tandem with long-term support from their general coach.
- Invest in sleep-friendly infrastructure. Natural light, the ability to nap at work, exercise, and easy access to nutritious food are all proven to benefit sleep quality. Ben & Jerry’s provides nap rooms. Google has “energy pods.” While a physical space for sleep is great, it’s not a prerequisite for progress. An abundance of natural light, for instance, can come from access to an outdoor space and ensuring the culture supports employees taking workday breaks outside.
- Offer flexible schedules. An 8 a.m. start time works well for the 30% of the population who are true “morning people.” But for 30% of the population who are true night owls, and 8 a.m.–5 p.m. schedule may cause chronic exhaustion. One’s chronotype is genetic and pre-determined. Flexible schedules that allow employees to influence their own working hours help ensure multiple chronotypes have the opportunity to thrive. Flexibility can extend to telecommuting, offering further autonomy for employees to cut out a long commute, and design their day based on the intersection between company needs and personal needs.
- Measure. Measure organization-wide sleep, and track progress. It’s hard to get buy-in for investment when we can’t see the extent of the problem. It’s hard to sustain efforts towards change, or to know when to pivot on strategy, when we can’t see our progress. Collecting data on individual sleep can be as simple as including questions related to employee sleep amount and sleep quality on annual surveys. Or it can, as some companies now do, leverage wearable technology. It probably goes without saying that any approach to collecting personal data should be carried out with ethics and individual privacy top of mind.
- Work gets done AT WORK. It’s now common for an employee to be in back-to-back meetings most of the day, only to end the day with additional to-dos on top of the existing work they never had time to complete. Often, this leaves the employee working after hours. All-day meetings, or any other consistent distraction, means no time for focus work, leading to working after hours, and compromising sleep. Work to ensure your organization is a culture in which employees can get the work done within their established working hours. One place to start is to instill “no meeting Fridays,” giving employees one reliable day for uninterrupted focus. Another is to encourage employees to create “work blocks” in their calendar, in order to protect the time they know they need for specific tasks.
Whether we like it or not, sleep is an integral part of peak performance. A sleep-deprived workforce harms individuals and undermines organizational success. Solving the common problem of sleep deficits requires a multi-level approach involving organizations, individual leaders, and individual employees. Fortunately, there are simple strategies that can be employed at every level to support healthy sleep, and in turn, enable businesses to sustainably reach their full potential.
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