CEO Insider

Practical Advice for CEOs to encourage a healthy sleep culture

You wake up. It’s 3 a.m.—again! Why always 3 a.m.? You get up and use the bathroom—maybe that’s why?! You go back to bed. You toss and turn. Thoughts flood your brain—issues at work, challenges in your relationships, the myriad of seemingly insoluble political problems in the world. 3 a.m. becomes 4 a.m. 4 a.m. becomes 5 a.m. 5 a.m. almost becomes 6 a.m. before you finally drop off to sleep. Then, the alarm!

You get up—shattered—after hitting snooze a couple times. You’re now running late and relying on caffeine to get you through the day.

Does this sound familiar? This is the life of many a leader around the world, though no doubt there are some that actually get up at 3 a.m. to start working on a daily basis! This behaviour does serve you in at least one important way – you ‘get stuff done’ at 3 a.m. The downsides are considerable and not always as obvious to you as they are to those around you. The effects on your prefrontal cortex – the crucial part of the brain that affects your executive functions – can be dramatic on aspects of work that are vital to any CEO. Their quality of problem solving will almost always decrease, as their creativity, pattern recognition and insight development suffer. They are also less likely to seek different perspectives when they are tired. Yet it’s exactly that skill of weighing up options plus avoiding tunnel vision and bias that’s needed to make the critical strategic decisions at the top of any organisation. And worse still, a fatigued CEO is far less likely to correctly read the nuances of a facial expression or a change in tone of voice, and to overreact or be more negative. And this is before we even consider the physical effects of how a tired leader comes across to those they wish to inspire.

As with many cultural shifts in an organisation, a necessary condition is that the CEO actually embodies the shift themselves, and then others in the C-suite will start to take note. So here are three tips:

  1. Set an example with your caffeine intake – Writing as someone who was a ‘seven espressos before lunchtime’ man for years this is a lesson hard learned. It’s remarkable how few people are aware of a few of the basic facts around caffeine. Most people are aware that it retards the natural sleep process, however less seem to know that its present in green tea as well as black tea, coffee, de-caffeinated  coffee (only in smaller amounts) and energy drinks. Also the half-life of caffeine is six hours, which means that 50% of what you ingest at 2pm is still in your system at 8pm.
  2. Exercise – many of us observe the personal evidence that on the days when we exercise we sleep better. As Rodney Dishman, the lead author of a 2014 University of Georgia studies puts it “Staying active won’t cure sleep complaints, but it will reduce the odds of them”. Other research shows that at least two & a half hours of moderate activity a week starts to make a difference, and that the benefits in terms of longer sleep may take four months to be visible.
  3. ‘Bookending your night’ – a simple concept whereby you allow time at the proper time at the end of the day to let the day out, and the same in the morning to let the day in. Read, talk, have a relaxing Epsom salt bath – basically do anything except work and/or look at your smart phone or computer. The author Nick Littlehales makes a good case for this being at least 90 minutes night & morning, however even an hour each side of your sleep can make a real difference.

A CEO that took one or more of these actions as a personal goal and talked about what they are doing and why they are doing it can have a significant organisational impact, especially on those working with them on a daily basis.

“That’s all very well for those in regular contact with the CEO” I hear you cry. “What can be done to influence those who are thousands of miles from the CEO?”.  Here a few ideas worth trying:

  • When you schedule meetings & when you reply to emails matters – others will follow your lead. One obvious tip is that if you wish to reply to a bunch of emails on a Sunday night, do so by all means however leave them in the draft box and end them on Monday morning (unless you are sending the message to somewhere like Australia!)
  • Set an example of stand-up meetings. Commodity traders the world over use ‘time outs’ of circa 15 minutes as a way to showing how much you value communication and also time! If you can couple that with finishing work at a sensible time everyone will benefit. And conducting your 1-1s whilst walking outside when conditions allow is far better for everyone’s sleep than sat down inside without natural light.
  • And natural light matters. Research by Dr Phyllis Zee suggests that employees in offices with windows get 45 minutes more sleep per night than those without the same access.
  • Be open about the amount of rest you need. Studies have shown that going 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of being drunk from both a cognitive and reaction time perspective. If your direct reports know that you are rarely ‘on’ for more than 16 hours at a time they will start to get the message.
  • And finally – flexible working. Evidence suggests that greater autonomy in how people schedule their time does help employees sleep more. And of course where people can work at their own rhythm and at the best times of day for them allows them to be more focused & efficient and even to take a restorative nap when circumstances allow.

A personal dream of mine is that one day a FTSE 250 CEO chooses their own attitude to sleep, and a culture within the organisation they lead, as a key to success and shares this with analysts & shareholders alike. UK business productivity is widely criticised, and our economy is increasingly become dependent on the fruits of our prefrontal cortex as the AI revolution transforms the world of work. So who’s to say that the most natural – and free – resource we have to hand won’t one day be named more and more by our corporate leaders as a key source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Written by Giles Watkins. Don’t miss:

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Giles Watkins
Giles Watkins is a coach and mentor for Aberkyn and Vistage UK and has over 30 years of global business and general management experience. He’s recently been featured in Psychreg Journal and Employer News to promote his new book, Positive Sleep: A Holistic Approach to Resolve Sleep Issues and Transform Your Life (Positive Wellbeing). Giles Watkins is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.