The Importance of Sleep on our Health and Wellbeing

21st March by Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

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The Importance of Sleep on our Health and Wellbeing

Why sleep is important

I would like to inspire you to pay much more attention to sleep!

Your sleep and the sleep of your clients. And furthermore, to recognise sleep in your executive coaching practice. So no, not falling asleep on the job but integrating the issue of sleep into your clients self awareness and life.

How often do we really know what is driving under performance in people? But startling ongoing research shows us a simple factor that is relevant in almost all aspects of human performance. And that is sleep.

In Matthew Walkers' recent best selling book, he states:

“Every component of wellness….are being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect: human and financial alike. So much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialised nations.”

Lack of sleep and/or poor sleep quality are proven factors in many diseases, problems with weight management, the ability to exercise well, mental health including addiction and psychiatric problems.  As Matthew Walker writes,

“There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).”

If we accept this, can it be that the best way to improve performance and improve outcomes from coaching relationships might be as simple as getting our attention on the duration and quality of sleep?

Nutrition and Exercise

Sleep is not, of course, the only crucial factor in performance and health. Nutrition matters, as does exercise but without adequate sleep, these other factors lose their ability to be forces for peak performance. Sleep is a foundational piece of our lives that we cannot do without.

In addition to this, we also know know that timing matters. Not all parts of the day are equal.

This means that when you have a coaching conversation with a client makes a difference to the usefulness, the impact and the benefits of that conversation. How we coach matters but when we coach matters too. Lack of sleep and its associated consequences ought to wake us all up (sorry!) to its importance.

Many coaches extend their one to one practice to working with teams. A team is not limited to the business environment either. A family is a team (at least ideally a family group works as a team) and what applies to the individual also applies to teams.

If team members are sleep deprived then they will underperform. Getting that performance up may be as simple as bringing in a facilitator and coach to assist in improving their sleep! Imagine that. No fancy workshops, no work on vision and mission. Let's all stop being too tired. And stressed. Stress and the ability to cope with it are closely related to sleep. The loss of enough sleep is so debilitating that depriving a person of sleep for 24 hours means that they will agree to and confess to almost anything (yes, anything)  if they are promised they can sleep afterwards.

The knock on in the organisational context is people will be more prone to acquiesce and agree to whatever is proposed if they are tired. They also tend to slack and suffer a lowering of ethical behaviour. Matthew Walker calls it social loafing. Fatigue brings compliance behaviours, not creative engagement. Walker writes:

“....under slept employees are more likely to blame other people in the workplace for their own mistakes, and even try to take credit for other people’s successful work: hardly a recipe for team building and a harmonious business environment.”

Lack of Sleep

As lack of sleep, or low quality sleep, has such implications, best practice for coaches would be to encourage and coach clients to assess all the factors in their lives that are relevant to how they are performing. To get clear about the quality of their sleep, rest, nutrition and so on because all of these, especially the sleep, will be affecting them. Bringing as many factors into the coaching conversation that is possible and inspiring a client to take a very complete look at their lives will make successful coaching much more likely.

So what is the challenge with this approach? First of all people tend to silo their lives. They cannot sometimes see the relevance. There you are, up for an executive coaching assignment to improve leadership and you want to be curious about sleep patterns! This can seem off piste. Second, many people are already aware they do not get enough sleep. Often they feel a little guilty or ashamed of it. This means that when you bring it up they feel somewhat uncomfortable, even irritated. Conversely, some people see lack of sleep or shortness of sleep as a evidence of a heroic role. We have been encouraged to believe that the get ahead successful people are those who push sleep to the back of the priority list to prove some kind of toughness. Weaker people need sleep. This has been amplified by public figures such as Maggie Thatcher who supposedly could function on five hours sleep a night. As Matthew Walker points out, only a minuscule number of people can function optimally on this kind of sleep and being sleep deprived means we make worse decisions, think less well, are less likely to be enjoyable to be around. Maggie Thatcher may have made some of her more controversial decisions due to sleep deprivation! 

Setting the context is important . Explaining why it matters and showing your client how it is all joined up goes a long way to crossing whatever resistance they have to changing their sleep quality and duration.

All of this also applies to ourselves. We have peaks and troughs as coaches and we too, need enough sleep to be able to offer our best selves to our clients. We do not get a free pass from being influenced by sleep.

I know that I am terrible in the morning until at least 9.00am. This is because my optimal sleep pattern has me in bed until 7.30am. It then takes me 90 mins to be in a state of full readiness to engage with a client or group as an Executive Coach. I learned the hard way that offering executive coaching sessions at 6.00am in the morning (yes, 6.00am!) was a bad idea. And I would suggest that anyone who asks for a coaching session at that time of the day might be already offering clues as to what might be affecting their lives. If a client suggest an early appointment, I ask them what time they go to bed. If they say around midnight and they want an appointment before 9.00am then I have to decide the following: do I want to work with them when they are in sleep deprivation recovery or are they one of those rare people who only need a small amount of sleep? You can quickly see that what is required is a conversation with them about their whole lives and to see what factors are at play. This of course is what I would then be doing in an initial set up session with client.

Consider when you offer yourself to work with clients to ensure that you are not offering them a version of you that is sub optimal! Would you want to hire an Executive Coach like that? I doubt it.

So sleep matters - both yours and your clients.

Getting this into the foundations of our work in supporters of life change, of behaviour change is a best practice and makes us front seat professionals. Whether we like it or not, science is helping us make these connections in a way that can both make us better as executive coaches in providing a good service and makes us happier and healthier into the bargain. What’s not to like?