The ability to get by on little sleep is frequently seen as a badge of honor in the business world. Entrepreneurs, in particular, often sacrifice sleep for the sake of their companies. In a recent survey of Inc. 500 CEOs, 48 percent said they sleep six or fewer hours a night, and 85 percent work 10 or more hours a day.

But skimping on sleep leads to more than bloodshot eyes. Numerous studies have shown that sleep deprivation impairs concentration, judgment, decision-making ability, and memory. It also increases irritability, anxiety, depression, and the risk of major health problems, including hypertension and some types of cancer. "Those macho types who brag about needing only six hours of sleep are falling apart, and they don't even realize it," says James Maas, a psychologist, corporate sleep consultant, and author of Power Sleep.

Many of your employees are probably bleary-eyed, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 percent of workers sleep fewer than six hours a night, and another study estimates that sleep deprivation costs U.S. businesses $63.2 billion in lost productivity each year.

Realizing this, leaders are looking for ways to optimize sleep--both for themselves and their employees--in order to gain a business edge. Many companies, including Google, Zappos, and the Huffington Post, are providing nap pods and other places for employees to catch some strategic shuteye at work. It makes sense. Even people who sleep seven to nine hours a night are naturally prone to an afternoon slump. "It's not lunch that's making you drowsy," says Maas. "It's the circadian rhythm." Taking a short nap--as little as 10 or 20 minutes--in the afternoon can decrease fatigue and improve alertness for up to four hours.

Stan Richards, founder and CEO of the Richards Group, a Dallas ad agency with 700 employees, set up nap rooms in his offices several years ago. "For a long time, I've known that there's a lull that comes right after lunch, when I tend to be less productive," he says. The company's four nap rooms, each equipped with a comfortable chaise longue and a locking door, get plenty of use during the week. "There's no embarrassment on the part of people using them, or any feeling that you're not doing your part," Richards says--largely because he himself can be seen slipping into a nap room every 10 days or so.

It's important for leaders to set the tone that sleep isn't for wimps. Those who themselves get by on very little sleep need to be particularly vigilant, says Andrew Herr, CEO of Mind Matter, a Washington, D.C.-area professional coaching service. "They may inadvertently create a culture where the people working for them get pretty degraded," he says.

Boosting sleep can have a big impact. A study published in 2011 found that the Stanford University basketball team, after upping their nighttime sleep to 10 hours, not only improved their reaction time, speed, and mood, but also bettered their three-point shooting accuracy by nearly 10 percent. Imagine a 10 percent improvement across key metrics in your business--and all you have to do is close your eyes.

How to create a pro-sleep culture

  • Limit emails. A recent survey found that about 60 percent of white-collar workers with smartphones monitored them 13.5 hours or more a day for work, stretching well into the evening. Late-night emails send the brain "stay alert" signals when it should be ramping down. Leaders can help by avoiding midnight missives, or at least setting clear expectations: If you like to catch up on email at night, make sure your team knows you don't expect a response right away.
  • Respect chronotypes. According to scientists, everyone has a "clock gene," or chronotype, which controls natural sleep preferences. Early birds tend to wake up an hour to several hours earlier than night owls. Understanding these different tendencies can help you schedule your team for optimal performance. (Try not to schedule early-morning presentations for your resident night owls, for instance.) Flexible work schedules are another way to accommodate chronotype diversity.
  • Change the lights. Light plays an important role in regulating circadian cycles, short-wavelength blue light in particular. Installing blue-toned white lights at the office can help boost alertness and productivity. But at night, you should decrease exposure to that light, which inhibits your body's production of the sleep-triggering hormone melatonin. Experts recommend avoiding screens--TVs, laptops, phones--that emit a lot of blue light for an hour or more before bed.
From the November 2014 issue of Inc. magazine
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