The final installment of this series shifts focus to corporate leaders. The author presents his unique insights into the value of sleep in the workplace—and shares a conversation with another expert colleague.

Read Part 1 of the Sleep & Corporate Health series here.

Read Part 2 of the Sleep & Corporate Health series here. 



The biggest problem with sleep is that it’s invisible. No matter how much you educate and explain and evangelize how important sleep is, people just can’t see what you mean. And in a business setting, when you’re working with very bright, busy, powerful people, the problem is even worse—leaders can easily see numbers, and sales, and profits. But they can’t see sleep.

So in this article I’m going to shed some light on the issue of sleep and executive leadership. Working one-on-one with executives, entrepreneurs, athletes, and peak performers has been among the most rewarding work of my career, and the majority had been neglecting sleep. To explore the issue further, let’s shift gears from the regulatory and macro-business issues surrounding sleep and corporate health to an area that is as vital for those in the C-suite as those on the front lines—the role of sleep in leadership behavior.

A Conversation with Christopher M. Barnes, PhD

Barnes is assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. His research interests include team performance and decision-making as well as sleep and fatigue issues in the workplace.

Emerson Wickwire, PhD: I’ve found your research absolutely fascinating, and I’m excited for our sleep colleagues to learn more about it. You’re not only looking at the importance of sleep in a business sample, but you’re also exploring how sleep loss fundamentally influences social interactions. What are the one or two projects that you find most exciting? 

Christopher Barnes, Business Faculty


Christopher Barnes, PhD: My current most exciting projects are focusing on leadership and sleep. In one, we find that sleep influences the early stage of relationship formation between leader and subordinate. Over a 2-month period, sleep deprivation of one party negatively influences the perception of the other party of the quality of the relationship. But sleep deprivation does not have the same effect on the self’s perception of the relationship quality.

EW: So, this work generalizes the seminal experimental findings on sleep loss of the early 2000s—namely, that people underestimate their sleep-related impairment—to a business setting. But your work goes a step further, adding a wonderful social component in a very real-world way. Others can see the impairment, but not he who is sleep deprived. And there will be downstream costs associated with this poor performance among leaders.

CB: Another examines sleep and charisma. We conducted a laboratory study in which we had participants give a recorded speech. Compared to control participants, those who we sleep deprived engaged in lower levels of deep acting (in which they try to put themselves in a good mood in order to show that good mood to observers) and were rated by observers as lower in charisma. Again, self-ratings of charisma were not influenced by sleep deprivation. In a follow-up study, we find that compared to control participants, sleep-deprived observers are in a worse mood and thus rate a recorded speech as lower in charisma.

EW: In other words, not getting enough sleep negatively impacts the performance of the presenter as well as the learning experience of the observer. Not getting enough sleep fundamentally impairs the ability to relate. It seems obvious, but you’re a real pioneer here. Let’s shift gears and talk about interdisciplinary collaboration. I always tell members of my communities that innovation takes place at the intersection of established disciplines. But there are always entrenched interests lacking vision or fighting for the status quo. You’ve presented at SLEEP—how has your work been received within the management community?

CB: I agree that interdisciplinary research can be very challenging. With sleep and management, there are two potential concerns. One is whether each of the two fields (medicine and management) values the topic of the other. In this case, I have been working hard to convince management that sleep is a relevant topic. So far, it has worked out very well. This is probably because my management papers on this topic also include variables that are clearly relevant to management. So my paper showing the effect of sleep on unethical behavior is not framed as a sleep paper. It is a behavioral ethics paper that just happens to examine sleep as an antecedent. Same with my paper on sleep and abusive supervision; it is a leadership paper that just happens to examine sleep as a predictor. Because of this approach, the management literature has embraced these topics. The other potential difficulty with interdisciplinary research is that the research team has to agree on what the final goal is—specifically, where to publish. So far, my approach has been simple. I have drawn from the sleep domain, but published in my own management domain.

EW: What you’re describing is very consistent with the thrust of this series on sleep and corporate health—that the field of sleep medicine needs to be more cognizant where we can add value. In terms of our topic, it’s illustrative that the academic management literature has been receptive. Folks are aware at a certain level, and you are contributing to that. Let’s shift gears and discuss corporate approaches to sleep. One of my very first sleep patients was an executive at a Fortune 100 shipping company. Treating his sleep disorder changed his life, but he was bearish whether sleep would become a high corporate priority. What are you hearing from executives and corporate decision-makers about sleep these days?

CB: Arianna Huffington is the best example of a senior leader who takes the topic of sleep seriously. If you check out her book Thrive, you will see that sleep is a huge theme in her priorities. That trickles down through her organization, manifesting as nap rooms in her company. Leaders at Google are moving in that direction as well. But in general, most senior executives believe that sleep is a lower priority than work and wear their sleep deprivation as a badge of honor.

EW: Pull out your crystal ball. In terms of real-world application, what do you see on the horizon in terms of sleep in the corporate setting?

CB: The more evidence I put out there indicating that undermining the sleep of employees undermines the interests of the organization they work for, the more traction this idea will get with senior leadership out in the corporate world. I don’t think research is enough to make that happen. But voices like Arianna Huffington are starting to emerge, and the convergence of a body of scientific evidence to go with these voices should start pushing things in the right direction. But it will be a long process.

EW: I can hear the grinding and gnashing of teeth! What in your opinion are the implications for our clinical sleep colleagues?

CB: What I hope will happen is that as organizations realize that healthy sleep for employees is in the best interests of the firm, such companies will be more willing to devote resources to helping employees sleep well. Ideally, this would be in the form of enhanced wellness programs that would include links to sleep clinics and financial coverage for sleep-related issues. But I can only speculate about this.

EW: Your speculation is right on time. But this effort will take a strong evidence base, real-world application, and credible, win-win partnerships between stakeholders. Dr Barnes, thank you for a great discussion. I’ve enjoyed it and am sure our readers have, too.

[sidebar width=”240” float=”right”]What This Means for You

If you are a corporate leader: If you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s negatively impacting your performance—though you’re likely unaware. The same is true for your subordinates. What’s your strategy?

If you are an HR executive: Well-rested employees perform better, and poor sleep is negatively impacting individual performance, workplace relationships, and team dynamics. How are you incorporating sleep into your employee orientation, training, and ongoing support programs?

If you are an employee: Timing can make or break success. For important conversations, make sure that you are well-rested and that your boss doesn’t seem overtly tired herself. And next time an interaction doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, look backwards to see whether sleep might have played a role.

If you are a sleep medicine professional: The vast majority of your patients are leaders—they all make decisions, set examples, and interact with others. Help educate your patients about the importance of sleep in these areas that matter to them.—Wickwire [/sidebar]

Emerson M. Wickwire, PhD, is director of the Insomnia Program and assistant professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a member of Sleep Review’s editorial advisory board.