Sleep Deprived

An article on the McKinsey & Company website caught my attention. It’s titled “Arianna Huffington on the link between leadership and well-being.” Huffington is the founder of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global, which I would describe as a kind of Oprah-like self-improvement site. In the piece Huffington makes the case that a better rested, less stressed-out executive or employee results in greater individual and collective performance.

Huffington states

If we continue to congratulate employees for working 24/7 or for being always on—then we are ignoring the science. We are ignoring the fact that they’re operating in an impaired state, that being up for 24 hours is the cognitive equivalent of being drunk.

My goal is to create new role models, and to bring business leaders, media leaders, and country leaders who are admired, and have them talk about how, in fact, when they prioritize their own well-being—when, as they tell us on airplanes, they put their own oxygen mask on first—they’re more-effective leaders.

The standard practice when somebody goes on vacation is to put an out-of-office message on, and you get that truly useless out-of-office email from someone. Then five minutes later, more often than not, you get an email. Because we’re all kind of programmed, once we see an email, to respond.

So Thrive Global created an app that allows you, if you opt in as an employee or as an individual, to have your emails deleted during vacation. Suddenly, you have this magical experience of zero emails in your inbox for the duration of your vacation. And everybody who’s done that, including me, can testify to the fact that you return to work deeply recharged.

Along with their interview of Huffington, McKinsey also published a detailed examination of the business benefits of properly rested leaders and staff. Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm wrote

The last part of our brain to evolve was the neocortex, responsible for functions such as sensory perception, motor commands, and language. The frontal part of the neocortex, the prefrontal cortex, directs what psychologists call executive functioning, including all the higher-order cognitive processes, such as problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, and executing plans. These help us get things done.

It’s long been known that all leadership behavior relies on at least one (and often more than one) of these executive functions and therefore, in particular, on the prefrontal cortex. Neuroscientists know that although other brain areas can cope relatively well with too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. Although basic visual and motor skills deteriorate when people are deprived of sleep, they do not do so nearly to the same extent as higher-order mental skills.

Previous McKinsey research has highlighted a strong correlation between leadership performance and organizational health, itself a strong predictor of a healthy bottom line. In a separate study of 81 organizations and 189,000 people around the world, we have found that four types of leadership behavior are most commonly associated with high-quality executive teams: the ability to operate with a strong orientation to results, to solve problems effectively, to seek out different perspectives, and to support others. What’s striking, in all four cases, is the proven link between sleep and effective leadership.


Interestingly, 70 percent of the leaders in our survey said that sleep management should be taught in organizations, just as time management and communication skills are now. Ideally, such programs should be part of a unified learning program that includes a number of components, such as online assessments, in-person workshops, and a performance-support app offering reminders, short inspirational videos or animations, additional assessments, and opportunities to connect with online communities.

Companies should embed sleep training in a broader approach to well-being that takes in other topics, notably exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, and energy management. Yet it can be daunting for leaders to go about changing a lot of behavior at once, so it’s important to allow time for new habits to stick.

Before introducing new policies, businesses should start a conversation among their leaders to determine which ideas will best suit the organization, particularly bearing in mind the fact that working cultures differ.

Travel. Companies should encourage flexibility—for example, by allowing employees, if possible, to take an earlier plane (rather than an overnight “red eye” flight) to get a good night’s sleep before an important meeting.

Team working. Companies must increasingly be responsive 24/7, but this doesn’t mean that specific people should bear the brunt of the burden single-handedly. IT help desks in many global organizations have shown the way—shifting location every eight hours. Likewise, other groups should work to alleviate the pressure by creating “tag teams” of employees who seamlessly hand over the reins to other teams, in different time zones, at the end of their shifts. Phone calls and home-based videoconferences do run the risk of extending the workday but, used judiciously, can cut unnecessary travel-to-work time. Leaders should set an example by being mindful of local times (and the time preferences of the people involved) when scheduling global calls. Simply knowing the participants’ preferences can help reinforce a sleep-friendly culture.

Emails. A number of companies have imposed blackout times on work emails. A large European car business, for example, programs the smartphones of its nonmanagement employees to switch off work emails automatically between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. In many companies, particularly knowledge-based ones, this would be disruptive and counterproductive—but provided there are overrides, such a policy can send a clear signal of management’s intent.

Work-time limits. Some companies known for a “long-hours culture” have been implementing rules to curb working very late at night. One major financial-services business, for example, specifically required its summer interns to leave the office before midnight each day to ensure that they were not subjected to “all-nighters.” This organization’s full-time employees have been told to stay out of the office from 9 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Sunday.

Mandatory work-free vacations. A US software company gives employees a $7,500 bonus if they follow two rules: (1) They have to actually go on vacation or they don’t get the money. (2) They must disconnect, and hence cannot work, on vacation.

‘Predictable time off’ (PTO). Leslie Perlow, a professor at Harvard Business School, introduced a good way to catch up on lost sleep: a planned night off, with no email, no work, and no smartphone. A large global consulting firm found that productivity went up when it tested this approach, which is now the basis for a company-wide program.

Napping rooms or pods. The image of a sleeping manager is easy to mischaracterize. Research has shown that a short nap of 10 to 30 minutes improves alertness and performance for up to two and a half hours.9 Over half of the leaders in our survey wanted their businesses to imitate the large technology companies and telcos that have already successfully adopted sleep pods and nap rooms.

Smart technology. Companies should consider supplying (or at least informing their employees about) some of the gadgets and tools designed to improve sleep management. Examples include the f.lux application, which limits blue light on computers and iPhones, thereby boosting reduced levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. Other apps on the market provide individualized jetlag-minimizing schedules.

I do not doubt the sincerity of Huffington or McKinsey, nor do I doubt the research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation. But as a former consultant at McKinsey I can state that 25 and 30 years ago there was no such concern over anyone’s lack of sleep in either McKinsey nor its clients. But over time people and organizations evolve their thinking. I also have no doubt that some business leaders walk the talk on this issue. But two things kept creeping into my mind as I read these pieces: “hypocrisy” and “dual class.”

“Hypocrisy” because while it is all well and good for leaders to discuss these issues, such good intentions usually fall by the wayside once they walk out of the seminar room or once the next “urgent” issue hits their organization. Even as the leader sends communications to the organization about the importance of proper rest, lower down in the food chain the foot soldiers usually must deal with middle and front-line managers who know they will definitely get in trouble if they miss a deadline but also know they will probably not lose their jobs for causing staff to lose a little sleep. The word “hypocrisy” thus creeps into the minds of the frontline staff as they see the gap between the reality of their situation and the rhetoric of the executives.

I mention “dual class” because I have no doubt that in some progressive organizations, some employees are, or in the future will, benefit from a more enlightened approach to total employee productivity, effectiveness and engagement. But I am also thinking about the many people working in the precarious economy. There may be some who are trying to make this “gig” economy sound progressive, but for the vast majority of people I know who work in this way they often do not have the luxury of sleep. Instead, they piece together an income from 2, 3, even 4 jobs and spend inordinate amounts of time on public transit. The sleep they are getting is on the train, bus or inadvertently on the job itself.

I know McKinsey and Arianna Huffington meant well, but they are rubbing shoulders with, and speaking to, an audience whose lives are vastly different than the frontlines of the economy. The real issue is that for many people sleep is not a tool for peak performance, it is a luxury they cannot afford.

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