In a recent study conducted in the UAE, 76 per cent of respondents reported sleeping between five and eight hours per night – with a staggering 13 per cent achieving less than five. This is despite the US-based National Sleep Foundation recommending between seven and nine hours of sleep per night for adults aged 18-64.

There is a significant and growing body of evidence demonstrating that poor sleep, particularly chronic sleep deprivation of less than six hours per night, leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes – not to mention the impact on your performance at work.

Busy professionals often experience many pressures that may impede their ability to obtain optimal amounts of sleep, such as different shift patterns, working across different timezones simultaneously and international travel. In the Middle East, lack of exercise and poorly controlled bedroom temperature may be particularly pertinent. In addition, the use of artificial lighting and hand-held technologies at night, ever-increasing pressure to perform – and, perhaps more importantly given the increase in presenteeism, the pressure to be seen to perform – and the lengthening of the working day all make the challenge of getting optimal sleep more difficult.

Even for those who are getting more than six hours per night, it is important to note that it takes relatively little sleep loss to lead to a range of cognitive and behavioural changes that will directly impinge on an individual’s ability to effectively carry out their role.

Indeed, research shows that a reduction in sleep of only 1.5 hours per night for one night alone can result in a decrease in daytime alertness of 32 per cent. As a leader, are you creating a work environment that encourages long hours based on the assumption that longer hours create greater productivity?

Not all behaviour is affected by poor sleep. Logical, deductive and critical reasoning – the types of skills and abilities measured in a traditional IQ test – are often relatively unimpaired, even after long periods of sleeplessness.

However, leadership skills and competencies, known as ‘executive functions’, are highly susceptible to even relatively minor sleep loss, and include: comprehending and coping with a rapidly changing environment; multi-tasking; producing innovative solutions to problems; assessing risk and anticipating the range of consequences of an action; controlling inhibited behaviour; communication skills; and decision-making involving complex and creative ideas.

Recent research has also shown that poor sleep impacts on organisational behaviours with an increase in ‘cyber loafing’, a reduction in ethical decision-making, an increase in argumentativeness, and a reduction in leadership ‘charisma’.

Particularly now, during these turbulent times, ‘executive functioning’ is paramount. Individuals are being asked to work with high levels of uncertainty, to consider the bigger picture and to anticipate risks and opportunities in a way that is unprecedented. Unfortunately, it is also a time when increased stress and job pressures may lead to a reduction in sleep quality and quantity – a sacrifice that individuals cannot afford to make.

Vicki Culpin
Professor of organisational behaviour, Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School

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