With Dr. Amy Bender, sleep scientist with the Calgary-based Centre for Sleep & Human Performance

How much sleep do executives need to function at optimal performance?

Business executives have a lot in common with elite athletes when it comes to mental exertion and the sleep needed to perform at a high level. Although there is a great deal of individual variability (women, for instance, typically require 20-30 minutes more sleep than men), the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult is between 7-9 hours per day. Even if you feel you are performing well on reduced sleep, it may be an illusion. In fact, only five per cent of the population requires fewer than six hours’ sleep.

Ideally, executives should wake up refreshed without an alarm clock. If you find yourself regularly hitting the snooze button or relying on caffeine to get you through the day, you’re likely not receiving enough shut-eye. And if you snore, cannot fall asleep within 30 minutes, or get more sleep but still feel exhausted, seek help from a sleep professional. These could be signs you have an underlying sleep disorder.

What are the impacts of executives not receiving enough sleep?

Research shows when you’re sleep deprived, your decision-making ability is compromised, your ability to manage stress declines, your mood is impaired, and your creativity slows. All of those things are crucial for senior executives.

There is also a direct correlation between poor sleep and physical health. When people don’t get enough sleep, their metabolisms slow and hormones are released that spike hunger, triggering carbohydrate and sugar cravings. Apart of weight gain, sleep deprivation weakens your immune system and puts you more at-risk for mood disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Can you explain the different stages of sleep? 

Sleep cycles are divided into two categories: Non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. After about 90 minutes of NREM sleep, you progress into your REM phase. This sequences through 4-6 times during the course of a normal night.

The initial stage of NREM sleep lasts about 5-10 minutes, is the lightest sleep, and occurs immediately after you have fallen asleep. You then move into the second stage, which accounts for roughly half of your total sleep time. It’s at this point your heart rate slows and body temperature falls. Stage three is perhaps the most essential part of your sleep, as your body tissues begin to repair themselves and your brain waves become slower and larger. The final, REM stage of the sleep plays a key role in memory consolidation, and is characterized by a spike in heart and respiration rates, paralyzed muscles, and dream retention.

Is it true that executives should consider napping at work?

Napping is a key piece of advice we give to businesspeople, who routinely battle elevated levels of anxiety in fast-paced environments. Research has proven workers who nap are actually more productive than ones that don’t.

There is a science, though, behind napping. Naps should be less than 30 minutes long and taken between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., when body temperature drops and it is easier to fall asleep. One trick is to set your alarm 10 minutes longer than your intended nap — and if you wake up before your alarm, get up. Resulting grogginess probably indicates you took too long of a nap and moved into a deeper, ‘stage three’ sleep.

How do executives balance sleep with busy travel schedules?

Travel can be a huge issue for executives; and how you deal with it depends on the length of stay at the destination. Managing your sleep starts with pre-trip planning. If you’re heading east, go to bed earlier and seek light in the morning. If you’re westward bound, go to bed later and seek light in the evening. Once you board the plane, adjust your watch to the destination time. It helps your mind to think in that time zone and starts to adjust your internal body clock.

While you’re in the air, beat jet lag by getting as much sleep as possible before landing. If you have trouble falling asleep on the plane, consider a taking short-acting hypnotic or melatonin supplement.

Finally, once you’re on the ground, shut off your laptop, phone, television, and tablet an hour before going to bed, and pick up a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. We know that the blue light emitted by electronic devices can be detrimental to sleep quality.