How a Toxic Boss Can Ruin Your Sleep
A new study shows how a bad boss can hurt your sleep.
Posted Jul 14, 2020
Whether you’re working from home or showing up every day to your workplace, the leadership style your boss takes is certain to affect you well past working hours. Everyone is under stress in the current economic and social climate, making the stakes that much higher in the supervisor-employee relationship.
Your own boss is almost certainly under pressure to perform by his or her own higher-up. Even if you’re working in a small business run by your boss, there’s pressure to perform in order to meet revenue quotas. Without a doubt, these are bad times for people whose sleep isn’t that good even in the best of circumstances.
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with an excellent sleep history. You lay your head on the pillow each night and wake up in the morning with no more than one or two brief stirrings. However, with all the stress you’re facing now, you can’t stop your mind from racing at bedtime, and when you eventually fall asleep either wake up several times with new bouts of mental unrest or find that disturbing dreams carry over into your waking consciousness. In general, then, sleep may be a commodity as hard to come by.
In a new study conducted prior to COVID but recently published, Oregon Health and Science University’s Marjaana Sianoja and colleagues (2020) found that employees who sleep better also perform better on the job. Not only are the well-rested happier and healthier, but they are also safer in occupations that present a risk of potential physical harm due to accidents. Given that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than one-third of those in the U.S. get too little sleep (less than 7 hours per night), this means that a large number of workers fall into the category of sleep-deprived.
Toxic bosses create sleep problems for their employees in ways other than ramping up stress levels. Sianoja et al. point out that two separate but related employer policies can lead to sleep deprivation in workers. The first may sound very familiar to you if you’ve ever had a boss who publicly claimed to sleep no more than a few hours a night. This type of “sleep leadership” sets a bad example for employees by downgrading the value of sleep hygiene as a contributor to overall health and performance. Sleep hygiene leadership is the first component of what Sianoja and her colleagues call the “work, nonwork, and sleep” (WNS) framework.
When a boss brags about needing practically no sleep in order to function, this is poor leadership not only because it sets up a guilt dynamic should you wish to get in a solid 7 hours yourself, but because it also shows a lack of concern for your own health. As the Oregon university researchers note, sleep leadership involves educating workers about the value of a good night’s sleep as well as showing concern for your own sleep quality. “How did you sleep?” could be part of a sleep leader’s morning greeting to an employee, according to this perspective.
The second component of sleep leadership involves, as you might expect, the support a supervisor provides for helping employees maintain a family-work life balance. If part of the toxicity involved in the environment created by your boss includes the expectation that you’re available 24/7, this will further erode your ability to get some well-deserved R&R. Indeed, one of the possible casualties of the work from home necessity associated with COVID is that if your workplace becomes your home, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be available at all hours for pitching in on a project.
The “family supportive supervisor behaviors” (FSSB) that can counteract this mentality included in the WSN are based on empathizing with the desire of employees to balance work and family demands. As explained by the authors, “employees who have a family supportive supervisor may find it easier to manage time when juggling work and family demands. Increased time management may allow employees to have a regular bedtime routine, go to bed on time, or sleep longer” (p. 190).
To test the WSN model, the Oregon researchers recruited a sample of 180 workers and their 91 supervisors from personnel providing support to the Army National Guard working in the northwestern U.S. The employees averaged 36 years of age (ranging from 20 to 57) worked regular daytime shifts, and most (86%) were required to maintain active military status by attending drills on weekends. The supervisors were a few years older and, like their employees, maintained their active military status.
Participant dyads completed measures assessing both components of the WSN model. Supervisors described their own sleep leadership behaviors by rating themselves on items such as, “I ask my subordinates about their sleeping habits.” Employees rated their supervisors on a comparable item. To assess FSSB’s, researchers asked participants to indicate their comfort levels (as employees or supervisors) in discussing conflicts between work and non-work responsibilities.
Employees wore sleep monitoring devices that recorded their actual sleep patterns over a 21-day period. To complement these objective indices, employees also rated their own sleep hygiene (e.g. “I go to bed at different times from day to day”) and subjective sleep quality (e.g. “My sleep was restless”). They also rated their own sleep-related impairments in everyday functioning (e.g. “I had a hard time getting things done because I was sleepy”).
Now that you know how employees assessed their sleep quality, you can try asking yourself similar questions. If you have a wearable fitness device, you can perform a similar comparison as in the Sianoja et al. study by using one of the many free sleep apps available. If you don’t like having your personal data uploaded into the cloud, you can decline when given the option to send your information to your provider.
Turning now to the findings, contrary to the study’s predictions, employees who rated their supervisors more favorably on the FSSB measure of work-family support slept shorter hours per night as measured by their wearable recording devices. The authors interpreted this result as potentially reflecting the influence of factors not measured in the study on sleep length.
In terms of these objective measures, it’s possible furthermore that the wearable technology monitors used in the study weren’t as accurate as they might be. If you do have one of those sleep apps on your wrist at night, you may notice that even if you felt restless during the night, this isn’t reflected in the data reported on you watch. The authors propose, alternatively, that if employees were parents to young children, their sleep might be more disrupted because of their family responsibilities which, in turn, could lead, in the best of situations, to greater efforts by their supervisors to support them.
Those FSSB scores, as reported by supervisors, were associated with higher self-rated sleep hygiene and less sleep disruption by their employees. In other words, even though employees may not have slept more hours if their supervisors were supportive of their non-work commitments, they did sleep on more regular schedules and felt less impaired in their waking lives by sleepiness.
A toxic work environment, as represented by an unsympathetic boss toward the pressures you feel due to non-work obligations, can therefore interfere with how well you’re able to maintain a regular bedtime. You’ll also feel less emotionally drained as indicated by your levels of daytime alertness.
That second component of a toxic environment pertaining to the supervisor’s sleep habits proved, similarly, to be related to the two subjective sleep measures. Employees who felt their bosses exemplified good sleep hygiene slept more soundly and were less likely to feel fatigued during the day.
When you think about a toxic work environment, you’re probably unlikely to identify the way your boss talks about sleep as a key component. Yet if you’re chronically sleepy and feel that you’re going through more than your share of nighttime tossing and turning, it’s possible that the message your supervisor sends to you about the importance of this aspect of your health is taking its toll.
To sum up, knowing the results of this study on a subtle form of toxic leadership may not be easily translatable into changes you can make in your own relationship with your boss. You may, however, learn to use your new knowledge about sleep leadership by your boss to be your own “sleep leader.” Your boss may suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, but your own fulfillment requires that you take your sleep, and your mental health, more seriously.
Sianoja, M., Crain, T. L., Hammer, L. B., Bodner, T., Brockwood, K. J., LoPresti, M., & Shea, S. A. (2020). The relationship between leadership support and employee sleep. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 25(3), 187–202. doi: 10.1037/ocp0000173