Good Managers Are Conscious of ‘Sleep Leadership,’ Study Shows
Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Professor and Associate Dean Brian Gunia leads an examination of the ways leaders can promote better sleep habits – and better outcomes – within their organizations.
- “Sleep leadership” is the idea that organizational leaders can act to promote better sleep among employees.
- This can result in improvement in employees’ workplace outcomes and in the overall well-being of the organization.
- The study’s setting was a U.S. Army base.
Reliable estimates say we spend a third of our lifetimes sleeping. Someone wide awake to the research potential of this topic is Professor Brian Gunia, a management and organization expert and associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
As a researcher, Gunia has made a specialty of examining ways people can avoid behaviors that jeopardize their careers – poor sleep habits among them, along with unethical behavior and ineffective negotiating. His latest paper, recently published by Occupational Health Science and co-written with Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Kathleen Sutcliffe of the Carey Business School, examines “sleep leadership,” the idea that organizational leaders can take specific actions to promote better sleep among employees and thereby improve employees’ workplace outcomes and the overall well-being of the organization.
In the following Q&A, Gunia discusses aspects of the new paper, including the choice of a U.S. Army base as the study’s setting. His other co-authors were Clinical Research Psychologist Amy Adler of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Professor Paul Bliese of the University of South Carolina. Gunia and Bliese also are affiliated with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Could you describe why poor sleep habits are a problem not just for individual employees but also for the organizations where they work?
BRIAN GUNIA: Employees’ poor or insufficient sleep can lead them to display a variety of problematic behaviors, mental and affective health problems, cognitive deficits, and physical illnesses. Each of these issues has the potential to harm the organizations at which they work (in addition to the employees themselves) in many ways. For example, unhealthy sleep can lead to distraction that prevents employees from achieving organizational goals, or it could introduce the potential for mistakes and even physical injuries. Alternatively, it could impair employees’ ability to interact productively and professionally with coworkers, customers, or others. These are just a few of the many ways in which employees’ unhealthy sleep can harm their organizations in addition to themselves. A whole academic literature has focused on this phenomenon.
Do organizational leaders contribute in any way to their employees’ poor sleep habits? Or are those poor habits strictly the responsibility of the individual workers?
Individuals’ own choices do certainly impact their sleep health. However, organizational leaders can also contribute to their employees’ poor sleep habits. In fact, much of the research concerning leaders and sleep has focused on this very phenomenon, suggesting that work conditions under the purview of leaders can exacerbate poor sleep. For example, employees afforded low control over their jobs or subjected to emotional strain at work are more likely to sleep poorly at home. Our work seeks to contribute to a growing body of research showing that leaders can also exert positive influence over employees’ sleep patterns.
Why were soldiers at a U.S. Army base chosen as the study participants, as opposed to, say, workers at a large private business?
We chose this setting for three reasons: First, healthy sleep is crucial for the well-being and performance of soldiers and the effectiveness of the U.S. Army as a whole (as it is in other high-risk occupations like law enforcement). Second, the U.S. Army trains leaders to attend closely to soldiers’ sleep, meaning that leaders have the tangible skills to engage in sleep leadership. Third, we had access to a large-scale, longitudinal dataset designed to ask soldiers about sleep leadership, sleep health, and self-regulatory outcomes.
What does better “sleep leadership” entail, in terms of steps and actions leaders might take?
Sleep leadership has two surprisingly simple components: Encouraging and enabling healthy sleep. “Encouraging” refers to leaders explicitly emphasizing the importance of sleep and/or implicitly emphasizing its importance by asking employees how they are sleeping. We argue that observing these leadership behaviors prompts employees to place greater value on healthy sleep. “Enabling” refers to taking tangible steps that should make healthy sleep easier — for example, adjusting an employee’s schedule or setting a rule that prohibits late-night emailing. We argue that behaviors like these create conditions directly conducive to healthier sleep.
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Do you find that good sleep leadership led to better sleep habits for the soldiers?
Yes, that is what our data suggest. Soldiers with leaders who engaged in strong sleep leadership at an initial time point showed positive changes in both sleep quantity and sleep quality over the course of four to five months. Our study cannot conclusively demonstrate causality, but by focusing on change, our statistical model does suggest that one contributed to the other.
Are the lessons from your observations of the soldiers translatable to everyday, civilian office workers?
We believe they are but do not yet have enough data to say so conclusively. At this point, in addition to the study reported in the paper, we have conducted a scenario study among about 300 employees of many non-military organizations. The study asked participants to react to a supervisor who engaged in either sleep leadership or one of two control forms of leadership. Reactions of these non-military employees to sleep leadership were quite positive: For example, those responding to a supervisor engaging in sleep leadership expected to prioritize sleep and obtain more and better sleep, and they rated the supervisor in the scenario as more trustworthy. Interestingly, they did not view sleep leadership as any more appropriate or inappropriate than the other forms of leadership, and they indicated that they could readily envision their actual supervisors at work using sleep leadership. Finally, participants’ real occupations did not influence their responses. This suggests but does not yet conclusively indicate that sleep leadership may hold benefits outside of the military.
Does sleep leadership have a role to play in the COVID-19 era, with people working and living at the same location and perhaps developing whole new ways of sleeping?
We certainly believe so, but it’s worthy of a study! Among many other effects, COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work life and home life. This blurring of lines is likely to increase the spillover between work and home, meaning that poor work conditions should have especially negative effects on sleep, but sleep leadership could also have especially potent benefits for sleep. Furthermore, better sleep at home could have especially potent effects on work behavior the next day. In other words, both the “problem” and the “solution” may be more acute in the COVID-19 era. We look forward to unpacking research questions like these that link sleep leadership directly to contemporary societal and organizational trends.