Resilience Series 2 – Sleep

Our Health Economist analysed a random sample of 500 executives, like yourself, who undertook an Executive Health assessment with Ford Health. These executives are at senior manager level or above, and come from diverse national and multinational businesses across Australia. The businesses represented include professional services, mining, resource and energy; construction and engineering; agribusiness and technology sectors.

We analysed data on work hours, self-rated work performance scores, self-reported stress as well as objective stress, anxiety and depression scores. This provided a snapshot of what impacts upon work performance at an individual level in corporate Australia, during a time when many are under pressure to produce more with less.


As we showed in our first article, when we analysed the data of 500 of our executives drawn from various sectors of corporate Australia, long working hours on their own do not necessarily impact adversely on work performance.

But we did find some interesting things that do have a negative impact on performance.

Correlation between sleep and performance

“There was a clear association between those who rated themselves as performing significantly less well than desired, and getting less than 7 hours of sleep most nights.”

These findings are not surprising as they are backed up by the outcomes of ongoing research into the impact of sleep on cognitive performance. The current guidelines for good sleep health recommend obtaining at least 7 hours of sleep a night.

Accumulated sleep deficit has been shown to diminish attention, reduce creative and innovative thinking, impair emotion processing networks and diminish working memory.

Compromise on these and you compromise your success in complex problem solving, consistent decision making, people management and responsive innovation – all of which are integral to the optimal performance of today’s executive. In addition, as seen in the Belinsky study in 2003, even a week of getting five hours of sleep per night can result in not only slowed speed of cognitive processing but, more importantly, greater loss of accuracy.

Further studies have also shown that a sleep deficit adversely impacts judgement and leads to those affected taking more risks in high level decision making scenarios. All of these effects began to be seen after only two nights of sleep restriction.

Can I catch up on sleep?

Yes, but at least two consecutive nights of 10 hours of sleep were needed before test participants recovered their full cognitive processing potential after a week of accumulated sleep deficit.

But isn’t there always caffeine to help out?

Well, interestingly, whilst using stimulants like caffeine can improve alertness, some aspects of these higher-level functions are not restored by this temporary fix. In particular, judgement remained impaired despite feeling more alert. In other words, you may be able to keep yourself awake and working by relying on a caffeine hit when you skimp on sleep, but the accuracy, care and consistency of your decision making may be significantly compromised.

Seven tips to improve sleep duration:

  1. Most people wake at the same time each day. So, if you value your
    performance at work, then go to bed at a time that gives you the opportunity
    to get 7 hours of sleep (not just 7 hours in bed).
  2. That means taking note of how long it takes you to get ready for bed and how
    long it takes you to fall asleep. Then do the sums to work out an appropriate
    bed time.
  3. If necessary, set a bed time reminder on your favourite personal electronic
  4. Avoid caffeine in the evening and keep alcohol intake limited to no more than
    two standard drinks.
  5. Don’t fluid load in the evening to compensate for inadequate fluid intake
    during the day. Spread it out evenly. Otherwise sleep duration will be
    reduced because of toilet visits during the night.
  6. Be disciplined and establish some good bedtime habits. Try to do the same
    things most evenings in the lead up to bed to create strong routines and thus
    reduce the time taken to fall asleep.
  7. And avoid the temptation to check your work emails before you turn the lights

“In our experience, the majority of executives we see who fall into the category of getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night do so out of choice or habit, rather than as a result of stress or medical disorders. Those who do experience reduced quality of sleep because of medical issues or stress should consult their doctor for specific advice on management to optimise sleep.”

Good sleep behaviours are not rocket science. They are the result of good choices.

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