The Effects of Poor Sleep on Business Executives

While a great deal of media attention has been paid to the importance of sleep for professional athletes, musicians and politicians, the role of sleep in ensuring the performance of business executives has been largely underreported until recently. Today, however, many companies are focusing on executive health and well-being with the aims of maximizing performance and key decision-making while limiting burnout. In accordance with these goals, one of the most urgent daily biological processes deserving of attention is sleep.

Attention, Memory & Performance

Sleep deprivation impairs several brain networks that control your cognitive function. Symptoms can start after 16 hours without sleep and get worse over time, impacting performance. Severe sleep deprivation results in reduced alertness, difficulty directing attention and, ultimately, in short periods of sleep during waking life. These microsleeps often go undetected but have an unpredictable impact on information gathering and processing. More importantly, they triple the risk of car accidents and foster negligence. A chronic lack of sleep also directly impairs your short-term and working memory, which often results in a failure to adapt established problem-solving strategies to new situations, even when these strategies are no longer optimal or even practical. The more extreme the sleep loss, and the longer and more tedious the task, the more likely performance decrements are to occur.

Judgment & Decision-Making

Not only does sleep deprivation damage cognitive function, there is also a psychological impact. The abilities to recognize and respond to threats, estimate the difficulty of future tasks and the evaluate the severity of consequences when making decisions are reduced. In a sleep deprived state, the brain is more likely to misinterpret subtle verbal and nonverbal cues, limiting the effectiveness of interpersonal communications. Sleep deprivation increases the perceived value of potential gains while decreasing the perceived value of potential losses, making you more likely to take risks. Morality becomes skewed; when sleep deprived, you’re less likely to recognize immoral behavior in others or to fully appreciate the moral implications of your own actions.

Physical Health

Executive well-being programs that address diet, exercise and work/life balance are a step in the right direction but won’t achieve their maximum effectiveness unless sleep health is also considered. Sleep deprivation increases your appetite via dysregulation of the two hormones that control hunger, ghrelin and leptin. This makes it difficult for you to lose weight and can contribute to obesity and diabetes. Sleep loss also leads to higher blood pressure, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and high cholesterol, resulting in heart disease and raising the risk of stroke. Sleep quality before and after exercise is important because researchers suspect it is during deep sleep that Growth Hormone, which stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning, is produced. Also, a lack of sleep leads to feelings of fatigue, sharply reducing motivation to exercise or, really, do anything else.

We’re Here to Help

Research has shown that sleep deprivation undermines executive leadership, planning, health, communication and judgement. If you’re having trouble sleeping, don’t sleep enough, or find yourself living with a constant feeling of fatigue, please consider reaching out for help by contacting the FusionHealth participant Resource Center at or 1-877-615-7257.

National Sleep Foundation
Harvard Business Review