5 Steps to Create a Sleep-Savvy Culture

Here are step-by-step solutions for leaders to protect their talent.
sleep culture work

Sleep matters. We know that sleep affects our health — blood pressure, levels of anxiety and cardiovascular disease. However, a lack of sleep is not just an individual health problem; it is a resource and productivity drain for the organization. With a sleep-deprived workforce, organizations make more mistakes, poorer decisions, take more sick days and have less energy — consequences that cost approximately $411 billion and 1.2 million workdays per year in the U.S. alone, according to a research report from RAND Corporation, titled, “Why Sleep Matters — the Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep.” Although sleep is a personal matter, organizations pay a hefty price if their culture encourages employees to cheat on sleep.

The Center for Creative Leadership studied the sleep habits of 384 leaders from more than 30 industries and found that nearly two-thirds reported a sizeable gap between the sleep they need to perform at their best and the sleep they actually get. (Editor’s note: the authors work for CCL.) This gap, known as “sleep debt,” averaged 53 minutes per night. We also found that many individuals believed that the average executive is sleep deprived and that putting in long work hours is part of success.

These findings are part of a larger work trend wherein organizations reward “workplace warriors”— workaholics who treat work as a 24/7 proposition. Working nonstop is praised and often expected. Yet, science shows that a workaholic ethos actually works against productivity. The more people forego rest, the less productive and more costly they become. Because of this, it is vital that organizations shift their thinking about the importance of sleep.

Healthy sleep habits must become rewarded and admired in the organization. Here are five steps organizations can take to build healthy sleep beliefs.

  1. Enlist executive sponsors to champion sleep and wellness initiatives.

To promote sleep, it is important that senior leaders lead the effort. Leaders can give legitimacy and visibility to the message that sleep is vital for performance by making policy or process decisions that relate to sleep and performance. For example, an operations director may review how the company manages staffing across shifts, or a division leader could institute a “recovery day” as a norm for leaders traveling globally.

  1. Accommodate circadian rhythms.

Research shows that there are biological differences in circadian rhythms: “Morning people” are naturally more alert and focused early in the day, while “night owls” hit their stride later in the day. Our study (and others) suggests that people who work during their “off-peak” times struggle more with their sleep habits, resulting in lowered productivity.

To fully leverage talent, organizations should consider offering flexibility regarding when and where people work, allowing people to design their own workday as much as is possible and practical. They should also provide extra support for employees who work at night or long shifts.

  1. Empower leaders to protect their talent.

Leaders can also directly help people on their teams who seem to be sleep-deprived or may be candidates for burnout. Managers should pay attention to when and how people are working. Is an employee always sending emails late at night or early in the morning? Taking on more work than is reasonable? Having a hard time staying alert and focused in a meeting? If so, the manager needs to intervene (e.g. “Go home; this will be here in the morning.” “You seem to be burning the candle at both ends — what can the team and I do? We value you and need you at your best”).

  1. Endorse power-napping at work.

Research shows that short naps (20 minutes or less) can help people feel refreshed and focused. This is often a better strategy than trying to muscle through in a sleep-deprived state and risk mistakes and inefficiency. Organizations can provide nap rooms, energy pods or comfortable chairs to facilitate napping when needed. According to the Financial Times, companies such as Zappos, NASA, Google and PwC offer napping pods.

However, organizations need to also encourage and educate employees about how to benefit from such resources; otherwise the resources will likely go unused. Again, leaders should set the tone: If they are unwilling to nap, others are unlikely to either.

  1. Be a shining example of work-life balance.

Leaders can influence the culture and behaviors within their teams by being an example of a rested, effective leader, rather than by reinforcing stereotypes about the 24/7 work life. Leaders can be transparent about their own choices to get enough sleep: declining a late dinner after a day of travel so they can be well-rested for an important morning presentation or noticing improvements to their productivity due to better sleep and letting others know. Even better, leaders can spread the word, telling their stories as “reformed” workplace warriors during a leadership program, speaking about the value of talented and well-rested employees, giving recognition to high performers who counter the warrior culture.  

Cathleen Clerkin is a member of the Center for Creative Leadership senior research faculty. Marian N. Ruderman is the director of research horizons and a senior fellow at CCL. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.