7 steps to nailing it (with your eyes shut): optimising sleep = better leadership

7 steps to nailing it (with your eyes shut): optimising sleep = better leadership

Originally published in Inside HR on August 22nd 2019

There are a number of important steps busy leaders can take to optimise their sleep – which will, in turn, improve a range of factors that make for better quality leaders, writes Stuart Taylor

In today’s globalised, hyper-connected, and “always-on” working culture, many of us are working longer hours with less sleep, compensating for less time in the office with more time in front of screens. Rest is becoming increasingly difficult for the average professional, with a plethora of meditation apps and podcasts to assist us in habitualising relaxation and restoration in our digital lives.

But before we reach for the smartphone yet again, it’s worth revisiting one of the most important relaxation exercises that so many of us fail to do right. That’s getting a good night’s sleep, which seems to be more elusive than ever before.

Sleep deprivation
People need to stop treating their sleep deficit like a professional achievement and instead evaluate how it’s affecting their overall productivity in the workplace. Swapping sleep to send emails late at night shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honour, and it proves only to be a hindrance to your work performance later down the track.

Sleep plays an integral role in how effective you are in a work capacity, your ability to make sound business decisions, and how engaged you are with your colleagues.

As our opportunity to recharge, regroup and establish an efficient mindset for the day ahead, most of us can only tolerate and recover from short periods of sleep deprivation with long-term sleep deficit having negative implications on your ability to perform at work long-term.

“A good night’s sleep will increase alertness, improve memory, allow you to make better decisions, allow you demonstrate a measured response to challenges and better handle stress – all factors that make you a better leader”

Aside from being an invisible contributor to our individual productivity at work and overall health, a study by Deloitte Access Economics health survey found that sleep deprivation costs Australian businesses $17.9 billion a year in lost productivity, with 46 per cent of the world’s sleep-deprived individuals frequently missing work or committing more mistakes in the office than those who practise a good sleep routine.

How much sleep do you need?
While sleep requirements will vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 8 hours per night to function at their best. Yet studies show that 4 out of 10 Australians aren’t getting the sleep they need to get to focus throughout the day.

There are a number of factors that could be causing poor sleep quality, including our obsession with technology and the tendency to face high levels of pressure in our roles at work. But the most successful leaders understand that there is a distinct link between quality sleep and optimal performance, recognising that good sleep routine can be a daily welcome boost to those who continually function at a fast pace and high-performance level.

If you are attempting to work effectively among a fog of ongoing tiredness, you’re tackling a losing battle and your social, emotional and psychological wellbeing will suffer as a result.

If that’s not enough to convince you to push sleep back to the top of your (long) list of priorities, consider the fact that a good night’s sleep will increase alertness, improve memory, allow you to make better decisions, allow you demonstrate a measured response to challenges and better handle stress – all factors that make you a better leader.

“If you are attempting to work effectively among a fog of ongoing tiredness, you’re tackling a losing battle and your social, emotional and psychological wellbeing will suffer as a result”

Tips for establishing quality sleep

  1. Discover your sleep rhythm. Our circadian rhythm ticks away in the background dictating our hormone levels, influencing when we are most productive and when it’s time for us to fall asleep. Over time, you will become aware of the optimal time you need to be in bed.
  2. Digital downtime. The blue light at dawn naturally stimulates our brain to wake up and keeps our biological clock in tune. Blue light, like the screens of phones and laptops, affects your circadian rhythm and makes falling asleep difficult. If you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, try limiting your mobile use an hour before bed, or use blue light filters on your phone. It’s time to reinstate a traditional alarm clock.
  3. Aim for seven to eight hours a night. Regularly sleeping less than six hours a night puts you at risk of ongoing productivity problems.
  4. Consistency. Commit to a strict wake-up time seven days a week. If you know you have to wake up at 7am during the week, sleeping in on the weekend effectively jetlags you, making your Monday morning wake-up even more challenging. Sleeping also affects heart health – evidence shows that Monday mornings have the highest incidence of heart attacks due to this.
  5. Don’t drink coffee past 2.00pm. While a late afternoon coffee may revive you in the short term, it will impact your ability to fall asleep quickly. For a 3pm pick me up, opt for a protein snack or a healthy smoothie instead.
  6. Avoid eating too close to bedtime. Eating too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep, mostly because it stimulates stomach acid production. If you’re really craving a late-night snack, try a bowl of cereal with milk or cheese and crackers. These types of foods are rich in minerals, such as tryptophan and calcium, which helps promote sleep.
  7. Put your work aside before you to go to bed. Ruminating about work won’t help anything, and there comes a point in the day where you are no longer productive. Mindfulness practices and other stress-reduction techniques such as breathing, and meditation are helpful for learning how to relax your body and mind before bed.

Written by Stuart Taylor