Drunk in Charge? The CEO Sleep Scandal

By July 21, 2013Business

What’s on the average manager’s mind? Too much, it would appear. In one of their periodic bedroom surveys, Ashridge Business School found that managers spend fewer than 7 hours asleep at night, and this decreases as seniority increases. Match this up with a long-day no-lunch culture, and this becomes an extremely alarming statistic. 17 hours of sustained wakefulness has been shown to result in changes in behaviour equivalent to drinking 2 glasses of wine. In the UK people who’ve drunk this much aren’t allowed to drive or operate machinery, yet their equivalents are at the helm of some of our largest companies, making really scary decisions, every single day. Should shareholders be worried?

Of the 340 managers surveyed, over 80% reported waking up at least once during the night, taking increasing lengths of time to fall back to sleep in line with seniority. The CEOs in the sample took 30 minutes to fall back to sleep each time, and 72% of all managers polled said they routinely found it difficult to concentrate on tasks because of lack of sleep. Given that a reduction in sleep by only 1½ hours per night for one night alone can result in a decrease in daytime alertness by 32%, a team with 3 insomniac managers is functioning the equivalent of a man down. Good quality sleep is also necessary to build memories, so persistent insomnia has an increasingly negative effect on recall and performance over time. Ignoring for the time being those managers who are kept awake by their children and not by stress – a subject very dear to my heart – these statistics should seriously alarm shareholders, and those responsible for analysing corporate risk, decision-making, and executive performance.

I’ve previously blogged about a concept called ‘ego depletion’. To re-cap, we self-regulate through our executive function, the brain’s PA. This organises our behaviour, regulating and monitoring it in response to the environment, and controls our actions and emotions. The executive function helps the brain to cope with complexity, creativity and problem-solving, and controls inhibition and the ability to assess risk. When we use willpower, energy is used up, as reflected in increased heart-rate variability and a reduction in blood glucose levels. These levels need to be topped up for us to continue to function well and, while food, water, self-esteem, and distraction can help, rest and sleep are the key levers. Ashridge’s findings on sleep and self-regulation paint a gloomy picture. If managers have effortful jobs and work long days, over time their ability to make good decisions will simply drain away, as will their ability either to notice or to stop it from happening. And it’s worsened by the everyday efforts all managers make that require willpower: coping with difficult colleagues, handling complaints, biting your tongue, being patient, resisting temptation…

But there are a variety of things that can top up the reservoir of self-regulation during a stressful day. Eating lunch, drinking water, and taking a walk round the block between meetings. Or eating bananas, going to the gym, and improving your self esteem through altruistic acts. Companies can help by taking this issue more seriously. After all, getting it right looks like it would seriously improve corporate performance. If your employees are working late and taking work home, you need to re-evaluate their workload, in case the cost of bad decision-making outweighs any savings you’ve made by downsizing.

And Ashridge’s Vicki Culpin has this advice for wakeful managers. Try to avoid alcohol, caffeine, heavy, spicy or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bedtime, and exercise regularly but not directly before you go to sleep. Keep your bedroom well ventilated, temperate, dark and quiet. Reserve it for sleeping, and try a light snack like a banana or warm milk before turning in. My own favourite piece of advice about insomnia is a bit widdershins: just try extremely hard to keep your eyes open. It works every time.

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