Helping the C-Suite to Manage Fatigue in Challenging Times

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on businesses globally, with top C-suite executives having to make decisions that they might have never thought to have considered. Even after the current restrictions are lifted, businesses will have to navigate through challenging and uncertain times, all of which will continue to impact on the way senior leaders manage their operations.

For businesses to adapt during these unprecedented times, key decision-makers are having to create new ways of working, new business strategies, lead teams virtually and make critical decisions with the aim of prolonging the future success of their businesses. No matter the size of the company, whether the decisions are for short-term survival or mitigating risk in the long term, all top executives are having to adapt.

The C-suite is certainly under pressure like never before, balancing measures such as ensuring customers’ best interests, protecting their people, communicating and providing strategy for the company, as well as taking a longer-term view – planning ahead for recovery post-Covid-19 and what the future of the business will look like. Clearly, there are decisions and new processes which executives are having to implement quickly, that are unprecedented and critical. Added to this, there is likely to be the impact of additional workload, added pressures on productivity and raised stress and anxiety levels. With this in mind, C-suite executives need to undertake strategies to manage their fatigue to be effective in the current climate.

Effective fatigue management is essential for the C-suite to facilitate effective decision-making and help steer businesses through these uncertain and challenging times.

Our advice for C-suite executives is based on our experience in delivering effective fatigue risk management solutions for clients in aviation and other safety-critical industries.


Prioritise adequate sleep – It is key to lead a team through uncertain times

Prioritising regularly obtaining adequate sleep is key if you want to lead with your head and heart, and not be reactionary. By setting a good example, you will also be helping your team to improve their sleep. This is particularly critical during Covid-19 during times when you are working virtually with your team and dealing with many stressful situations and business-changing decisions.

Strong C-Suite executives have the capacity to lift and support their team and research indicates that ‘obtains adequate sleep’ should be added to the list of desirable traits of a leader. Work performance is highly related to how much sleep you obtain. When you don’t get adequate sleep, you will find it difficult to recall information, such as procedures, and pay attention to multiple tasks. Those who are tired, are likely to make wrong decisions because risk-taking behaviour [1] and biases and prejudices are triggered [2]. A lack of sleep also has a negative impact on your mood with the literature indicating that sleep deprivation is linked to anxiety [3]. If you do not sleep enough, you are also less likely to accurately identify your teams’ emotions and alleviate conflicts at the workplace, and more probable to blame your team and express anger [4].

In order to maintain a high level of alertness and performance, we are best suited to being awake for no more than about 16 hours following 8 hours of good quality sleep, although these values can differ slightly among individuals. However, you cannot ‘train’ yourself to work for longer or to need less sleep. After being awake for 19 hours, even with 8 hours of good quality sleep beforehand, our reaction times are around 30% slower than when we are fully rested.


What is Social Jetlag?

Before Covid-19, it was estimated that 87% of the population were experiencing ‘social jetlag’, which occurs when our daily activities are not in sync with our natural biological rhythm of activity during the day and sleep at night. Social jetlag interferes with our ideal biological timing of sleep at night and wake during the day. For example, when working through the night, for multiple days, we can have trouble sleeping, feel tired during the day, we are hungry in the middle of the night and don’t feel like eating during the day. We feel moody, irritable and lack motivation.

Working long hours, dealing with colleagues on different time zones, waking up early to care for young children, eating late or watching movies late at night, or a combination of all these factors were all causing social jetlag. The Covid-19 outbreak has transformed our lives and whilst elements of social jetlag have temporarily changed, such as the way we socialise, other aspects still remain relevant such as domestic responsibilities, childcare responsibilities at night, and most applicable – longer hours to deal with additional work pressures.


It is important to establish effective patterns when working from home

In these uncertain times many C-Suite executives are working longer hours, spend longer digitally connected to their teams by smartphones and computers, as well as having to work across multiple time zones to be available for key decisions and important communications.

We recommend the following to help you establish effective patterns and limit social jetlag:

Spent at least an hour outside every day. Regular exposure to natural light during the morning hours will help you to feel sleepier in the evening when you want to fall asleep. Try to spend at least an hour a day outside, in the morning and before lunch. A study found that daytime office workers who received bright light in the morning fell asleep more quickly and slept for longer and had a better mood than office workers exposed to low light levels [5].

Before sleep: Avoid bright light, switch off devices, and allow time to wind downEveryone should avoid exposure to bright light before sleep. In order to fall asleep our mind needs to ‘wind down’ or ‘switch off’ so avoid using electrical devices, and dim the lights, 1-2 hours before bedtime. Particularly important if you are working earlies.  About 90 minutes before bed try doing something relaxing and enjoyable.  Try reading a book using a reading lamp with a yellow glow rather than a white or blue light, listen to calming music or practice relaxation exercises.

Get some physical activity every day: Outdoor exercise has the dual benefit of getting you your daily ‘dose’ of sunshine and the benefits of physical activity. Exercise helps people fall asleep more quickly, improves sleep quality and reduces levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms. 2,600 men and women, ages 18-85, found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week, which is the national guideline (USA), provided a 65% improvement in sleep quality [6].

Eat at regular times every day: Some organs, such as the liver and the gut, are influenced by the body clock in the brain and have their own peripheral clocks. While the body clock responds to light and dark, the peripheral clocks respond to mealtimes. Darkness and fasting tell the body it’s time to sleep, and light and eating tell the body it is time to be active. After the period of fasting that occurs at night when we are asleep, the timing of both the first ray of sunlight and the first bite are just as important in setting the timing of the peripheral clocks. To keep all of your clocks in sync, try to keep your mealtimes regular and limit your eating window to 12 hours. If you have your first cup of tea or breakfast at 7 am, try not to eat after 7pm.

Keep similar bedtime on work and days off: Try to go to bed and wake up at similar times on work days and on days off. Depending on your work schedule and social and domestic responsibilities this will be more or less possible. If you can manage to align your sleep on work and rest days with your work schedule, research indicates that you should sleep better and for longer.

For further information on our Fatigue Risk Management research, training and consulting services get in touch:

Phone: +44 (0)1276 859 519

Key references[1] Womack, S., Hook, J., Reyna, S., & Ramos, M. (2013). Sleep loss and risk-taking behavior: a review of the literature. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 11(5), 343-359.

[2] Ghumman, S., & Barnes, C.M. (2013). Sleep and prejudice: a resource recovery approach. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 166–178.

[3] Sagaspe, P., Sanchez-Ortuno, M., Charles, A., Taillard, J., Valtat, C., Bioulac, B., & Philip, P. (2006). Effects of sleep deprivation on color-word, emotional, and specific stroop interference and on self-reported anxiety. Brain and Cognition, 60(1), 76-87.

[4] Gujar, N., McDonald, S. A., Nishida, M., Walker, M. P. (2011). A role for REM sleep in recalibrating the sensitivity of the human brain to specific emotions. Cerebral Cortex, 21(1), 115-123.

[5] Figueiro, M. G., Steverson, B., Heerwagen, J., Kampschroer, K., Hunter, C. M., Gonzales, K., … & Rea, M. S. (2017). The impact of daytime light exposures on sleep and mood in office workers. Sleep Health, 3(3), 204-215.

[6] Loprinzi, P. D., & Cardinal, B. J. (2011). Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005–2006. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 4(2), 65-69.