What are the biggest challenges that leadership figures are currently facing with sleep?
Everything is moving so fast. The pace of life is constantly accelerating, spurred by relentless advances in technology, which means that across society – and within organisations – we have all become very restless. People are no longer able to recover their energy in the way they were once able to.
If I think back to one of my first jobs after leaving university, tea breaks and lunch breaks were written into my contract. Recovery periods were built naturally and organically into the flow of the day through those break rituals, which enabled us to socialise and replenish ourselves. Now, people eat at their desks or on the go. And in the years since COVID struck, remote and hybrid work have become increasingly fast-paced and intense, blurring the boundaries between domestic and professional life.
Those factors have placed ever greater demands upon sleep to replenish and restore us physiologically from the rigors of our day. But in organisations, employees – and especially leaders – are constantly looking for ways to ‘hack’ sleep. For example, “If I sleep five hours a night during the week, I can catch up at weekends.” Or, using naps during the day – which aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves – as permission slips to sleep less and less at night. But sleep can only go so far towards replenishing us. And we can only put it under so much pressure before that process affects our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
What sorts of effects or risks can arise from leaders not getting enough sleep?
In a recent presentation, I spoke to 500 headteachers and teachers about the concept of being the change they wanted to see. As part of that, I stressed that energy is infectious. If you are working with people who you must figure out how to lead, inspire and motivate – whether you’re in a blue-chip organisation or a classroom – your primary responsibility is to manage your energy so it’s equal to the task.
Your energy is a function of how you have slept, moved, eaten, drunk, navigated your personal relationships and managed your time.
In their 2003 book The Power of Full Engagement, Harvard researchers Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz talked about how energy, like health as a whole, has mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. When our leaders show up running on the wrong type of energy – by which I mean a raw, survival energy – they transmit that level of consciousness, or ‘vibe,’ to us, and that vibe spreads inexorably. We can feel it when leaders are running on the energy of fear, or highly caffeinated exhaustion – and having absorbed that energy, we in turn impart it to those around us.
When you walk through an organisation’s revolving doors and head to reception, you can feel its vibe in the air – and you can quickly get a sense of whether staff feel at liberty to take tea breaks, lunch breaks or walks outside. My PA has just booked a holiday and told me, “I’ll be gone for two-and-a-half weeks and won’t be taking my laptop,” and I absolutely support that. But there are plenty of organisations where staff feel unable to draw that line. And if you track down the source of those constraints and inhibitions, it’s invariably a leader who’s running on fear – who thinks that the business must be driven forward in a certain way and expects staff to be contactable 24/7.
That leader is surviving, not thriving. But all the things that their fear-based energy is stamping out – such as eating healthily, recovering during the day and sleeping well at night – are not nice-to-haves. They’re essential. In organisations where those things are in place, you see lower attrition, absenteeism and sickness rates. And despite the financial challenges that so many of us are facing right now, people are still leaving organisations if they feel like their leaders are preventing them from showing up as their fully energised, best selves.
Which steps can leaders take to reprioritise sleep in their lives?
It all starts with education – and that education must be holistic.
When I speak to organisations, sleep is my golden ticket to discussing a whole range of other things. I’m not looking at mattresses, pillows and blinds, as though I’m browsing Amazon. I’m examining how we must learn to nurture and nourish our energy, and how we must evaluate whether we are eating, moving, drinking and interrelating in a healthy fashion. It all comes down to urging people to focus on those simple, daily choices.
Importantly, leaders must show an example by turning up at those educational sessions – for example, by introducing someone like me and saying, “The sorts of measures this individual recommends are what I’m taking to maintain a healthy balance in my life – and here’s what happens when I’m not following them.” But the crucial part of this is to avoid pathologising the message so that it feels rooted specifically to one leader’s mental health struggles. It must always be linked to common, everyday experiences in the working environment.
Bear in mind that there are levels of responsibility, here. A responsible leader would own their duty of care. But managers and individual front-line employees must be responsible, too. In enabling staff to push back against compressed schedules, or book gym sessions, or meditate in the afternoons, organisations must also encourage workers not to waste those opportunities for self-care. That’s how leaders will join the dots and overcome a notoriously tricky problem: that they routinely hire perfectionists who are reluctant to ask for help.
What effect would that approach have in both organisational and societal terms?
Again, let’s keep it really simple: what if people turned up to work as their best selves:
firing on all cylinders physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually;
operating in a state of balance, whereby they’re not surviving, but thriving;
bringing their best, most joyful and most fulfilled selves to work – and leaving with the best of themselves, too, so that they have energy for the people they love and all the other things in their lives that they enjoy doing?
Those benefits don’t require much pondering to consider that, together, they would provide organisations and society alike with a huge win-win.
We humans are designed physiologically and psychologically to be at our best when we're thriving. So, let’s choose as individuals to thrive – and leaders: let’s choose to enable people to come to work and thrive, because we will all get the best out of it.
As a final point, I would like to encourage the readers of this piece to try box breathing. The way it works is, you inhale for five seconds… then hold that inhalation for five… then exhale for five… and hold the end of that exhalation for five. Go through that process for about five minutes as soon as you wake up, then two or three times during the day and once again in the evening, and it will help you to manage and defend against anxiety and/or low energy by enhancing your serotonin level. And if you combine it with regular gratitude observances, too, you will have quite a powerful consciousness practice to weave throughout your day.
Voices in our community: Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a physiologist, sleep expert, speaker and author of four books – including Finding Inner Safety and Fast Asleep, Wide Awake
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