Balancing Stress and Recovery
For three years we have used cutting-edge technology to precisely measure daily levels of stress, recovery and physical activity of a large number of Senior Executives in global organizations. The device uses heart rate variability (HRV) data to track an individual’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulation and monitor stress and recovery reactions.
Stress reactions – which can also be “positive” in the sense that it can reflect high levels of excitement or productivity – indicate activation of the sympathetic branch of the ANS, which is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. On the other hand, recovery is associated with an activation of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, indicating that the “rest and digest” process is actively restoring the individual’s physical, emotional and mental resources. Balancing our daily stress reactions with adequate recovery is a key component of a healthy lifestyle and has a huge impact on our ability to perform at our best.
The results of our individual measurements are always intriguing, and provide immediate insight into someone’s lifestyle, habits, strengths, opportunities for growth, and potential hazards to their health and performance. Equally interesting are the patterns that emerge over time and large quantities of data. Having worked with a large number of Senior Executives in industry-leading global organizations who face the daily challenge succeeding in high-pressure environments, it is clear that the number one obstacle to sustainable optimum performance is a lack of proper recovery, and especially insufficient sleep.
What the Data Reveals
Based on our data the average length of sleep for Senior Executives is around 6.5 hours, which is comparable to statistics on the general U.S. population. However, the additional step of measuring HRV reveals that only 62% of that time registers as actual recovery, equivalent to 4 hours. The recommended minimum is 8 hours of sleep and 75% recovery, equaling 6 hours of full recovery. In other words, the average participant in our Resilience Program is getting 20-30% less than the minimum recommended amount of recovery each night.
When you look at the cumulative effects of this pattern over multiple days, here’s what you get:
The chart above illustrates the daily use and replenishment of an individual’s resources (stress reactions appear as red and recovery reactions appear as green). You can see that not only is there little to no recovery during the day, but the recovery during sleep night is often interrupted by a period of stress reactions. This results in the individual starting each day with less resources than he/she started with the previous day. Extrapolate that over the course of a 20-30 years career, and we can begin to see the challenge.
Behind the Numbers
But the hard data only provides part of the picture. The real magic happens during the individual debrief session, where we can start to discover what’s causing these unsustainable sleep patterns. And when we do that, we tend to encounter a pretty small and consistent list of behaviors. Here are some of the usual suspects, along with our suggestions on how to shift the habit and develop a more resilient lifestyle:
Cause #1: Access to devices before bed. Whether you’re working on you laptop, checking social media on your phone, or watching television on the couch, digital screen exposure before bed has a negative impact on your sleep by inhibiting the release of melatonin, a hormone that lets our body know it’s time to sleep. So when you go to bed at 11 PM after an hour of work, even if you fall asleep quickly, the device often shows that your nervous system remains in a stress reaction for the first 1-2 hours of your sleep.
Solution: Limit use of devices and television in the evening, and replace that behavior with a ritual that triggers the recovery process at least 30 minutes before going to bed. This could include reading a book, talking with loved ones, drinking herbal tea, gentle stretching, or doing some meditation or conscious relaxation. Dim the lights, do as little as possible, and give your body and brain the clear signal that it is time to start winding down.
Cause #2: Not enough daytime recovery. Most Senior Executives work long hours, often without having any breaks during the day. Even if we think that we are being more productive by multitasking, taking back to back meetings, and working from our phones while commuting, research shows that the most efficient way of working.
Solution: Take strategic recovery breaks of at least 10-15 minutes, 1-2 times a day, ideally in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, thereby breaking up your workday into approximately four 90-minute cycles. Get out of your typical work routine and environment by taking a walk, doing some breathing exercises, or sitting in a local park. Take time to connect with yourself, clear your mind and relax your body. Make sure you limit access to your devices and e-mail.
Cause #3: Alcohol in the late evening. Data (and our experience) shows that for most people even just one drink (1 oz. of hard liquor, 5 oz. of wine) can have adverse effects on sleep quality. Our body needs sufficient time to metabolize the alcohol, which can delay falling asleep and/or inhibit the recovery process.
Solution: We don’t believe in being perfect all the time – we believe in performing at our best when we need to. If you know that the next morning you have an important client meeting, a big presentation, or some other event that you need to really show up for, it’s probably wise not to burden your system with too much alcohol the night before.
Cause #4: Stress at home. We often think that work is meant to be stressful and the time to recover is when we get home. However in our experience we have seen over and over that stress reactions in Senior Executives actually increase upon getting home. When a stressful workday depletes your resources, by the time you get home you don’t have much left to give, and struggling to be present with your family becomes yet another a source of stress.
Solution: This pattern highlights the need to schedule strategic recovery breaks throughout our day. By working in cycles and taking time to recover in the morning and the afternoon, we ensure that we still have enough resources to be present and available for our friends and family at home. An equally important solution is to communicate with loved ones about how to support each other and engage in resource-replenishing activities together.
The consequences of sleep deprivation on the workforce have been known for a long time, yet for many of us it remains the number one reason we struggle to perform at our best. But with the right information, tools, and support, you can start making changes that will have both immediate and long-term benefits.
The keys for us in supporting Senior Executives to achieve positive changes in their sleep patterns are: to demonstrate through empirical data the reality of their resource depletion and the potential long-term effects on their overall health and performance; to clearly identify key leverage points where replacing an old habit with a new behavior will have a powerful effect; and finally to choose only one change to work on at a time.
Using this approach we have seen considerable improvement in both the length and quality of sleep for approximately 70% of the Senior Executives that have worn the HRV monitor and been through our Resilience Program. Better sleep leads to everything from better moods, to improved attentiveness, to improved emotional intelligence. And with sleep-deficit-related productivity loss costing U.S. employers approximately $18 billion, it will certainly impact your business’ bottom line.
Ole Hoyer is CEO and Founder of 1 change (www.1change.co), a boutique consulting firm who design and deliver customized Resilience Programs for Senior Executives, Managers and Talent in industry-leading global companies. 1 change is located with offices in New York, London, and Copenhagen.