Of all the words that strike fear into the heart of a sales leader, “burnout” may be the most dreaded. Burnout is a real and serious risk at any job, but the constant pressures and quotas of selling make it loom especially large in the sales world.
Now, as more people work from home than ever, the risk of burnout is climbing. The line between being at work and being off the clock has blurred. Employees must simultaneously juggle the commitments of life, family, and business in a single space.
How can team leaders keep burnout from closing in? It’s a question with a multifaceted answer, but the first step is to prioritize your team’s wellbeing by focusing on their sleep. More than the stresses of work, sleep loss spells inevitable burnout for your employees.
But prescribing better sleep hygiene is only the beginning. For lasting change, you’ll need to fundamentally reframe how your team thinks about the significance of sleep and the structure of their days. As their leader, you should also adopt this new framework yourself—thereby becoming a guide to keeping burnout at bay.
Burnout is more than being tired or listless at work. It’s a state of prolonged exhaustion that affects all of your faculties: mental, emotional, and physical. Research states that it’s most commonly associated with chronic stress, which can be work- or life-related.
The 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon with three distinct aspects: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Put simply, being burnt out means you’re running on empty across the board. You can’t muster the cognitive energy to do your job well, the emotional energy to feel positive, or the physical energy to reinvigorate your body. Often accompanying this exhaustion is a sense of deep shame—you want to pull yourself out of the rut, and you blame yourself for your inability to do so.
If You’re Burnt Out, You’re Not Sleeping Enough
Burnout is a complex state, and research has identified a variety of causes behind it. Long-term stress has been the most popular explanation in the scientific literature, and it can be split into many distinct stressors, including but not limited to: high work demands, low levels of authority at work, lack of support at work, job insecurity, and an inability to mentally let go of work during off-hours.
However, the latest studies have found a causal link between sleep loss and burnout—one that appears to be even stronger than the stress-burnout connection. One such study monitored burnt out employees for two years, gauging their stress, sleep habits, and burnout severity through regular clinical assessments.
The researchers found that “too little sleep” (in this case, less than 6 hours of sleep per night) was the primary determinant of clinical burnout. Although “work demands” and “thoughts of work during leisure time” also contributed to burnout, they had less of an impact than sleep deprivation.
Other studies have backed the strong relationship between sleep loss and burnout. For example, we now know that insomnia recursively encourages the development and exacerbation of burnout, and vice versa.
Thankfully, research also indicates that the connection works both ways: reducing fatigue through sleep is a surefire way to fight back against burnout, and “the best predictor of return to work” for burnt out employees.
These findings may make it seem like the antidote to burnout is close at hand. But like any complex problem, burnout doesn’t have a simple answer. To truly stave off burnout, your employees need to look at sleep and their daily schedules through a new lens.
The experience of burnout is obviously a trying one for any employee. It doesn’t help that burnout can be self-perpetuating, as many efforts to combat it—working more hours, or pushing yourself to complete tasks for which you don’t have the energy—just make it worse.
Burnout also has tremendous repercussions for employers. It’s estimated to cost businesses between $125 billion and $190 billion a year in healthcare expenses. Additionally, a Gallup report showed that burnt out and “actively disengaged” employees are costing their employers 34% of their individual salaries due to their poor performance.
And that’s only the employees who stay. According to a 2016 study conducted by Kronos and Future Workplace, 95% of HR leaders agree that burnout plays a crucial role in employee turnover. In fact, it can account for 20%–50% of the turnover that occurs at a given business.
Left untreated, burnout can lead to and worsen serious health conditions. It’s such an insidious force that it’s associated with more than 120,000 deaths each year—deaths that, as this paper claims, could potentially be prevented if businesses altered their management styles.
The Risk of Burnout is at an All-Time High
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout was a risk at any office. Because American corporate culture equates success with visible drive and quantifiable working hours, many star employees were consumed by burnout as they strove to distinguish themselves from their peers.
Now, however, with approximately 60% of the workforce working from home, burnout has become an even bigger threat. This fact may seem counterintuitive at first. Employees have less rigid schedules and more time to complete their work—shouldn’t they be more relaxed?
But the problem isn’t time-based; it’s energy-based. Working from home conflates our work lives and our home lives, combining the stresses of each into a constant stream of responsibilities vying for our attention. The “always on” mentality has become far more literal: when your home is your office, you’re never actually off the clock.
You don’t have your commute, your dress code, or in-person meetings to preserve the ordinary boundaries between professional zones and relaxation. And perhaps most significantly, the internet is always available, pinging you with unanswered emails, to-do items, and the siren song of social media.
As digital anthropologist and author Rahaf Harfoush put it, “When you combine our culture of chronic overwork with the distraction inherent to technology … this puts people on a fast-track to burnout.” Our energy reserves are being drained from all directions.
Telling your team to sleep more can be helpful, but it’s a bandage, not a cure. For salespeople, optimal wellbeing and productivity can only happen when they achieve a deeper understanding of how sleep affects every aspect of their lives. Start with these four primary lessons:
Many employees adopt an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality at work, thinking that more time awake will yield better results. This philosophy is misguided, however—to be at your most productive, your brain and body need regular, sustained periods of rest.
When you sleep, your brain conducts a multitude of intricate processes that ready you for the next day. It consolidates memory, solidifies information you’ve learned, and rebuilds your emotional fortitude, among other tasks. Without this recharging period, you’ll be at a stark disadvantage to colleagues who got the sleep they needed.
The same is true of anyone who’s trying to build muscle in the gym. After each workout, the body literally requires sleep to kickstart tissue repair and muscle growth. Whether you’re trying to hit a sales goal or up the number of plates on your barbell, recovery isn’t a luxury, or a sign of laziness. It’s just as necessary to self-improvement as exerting effort.
It can be tough to push back against the dominant mode of thought in corporate culture. But a cultural shift around sleep—and even workplace napping—is taking place. Companies in the know have begun to acknowledge what experts like Harfoush have been saying for years: “"If you’re a high performer and recovery isn’t an intentional and strategic part of your time and workflow, you’re only damaging your output in the long run.”
Sleep lays the groundwork for everything you do while awake. Its impact on how you function can spell the difference between success and failure at any job. That said, sales work is particularly affected by sleep, as it entails a unique and demanding mix of cognitive, emotional, and social skills.
Every one of us has an innate sleep need, with the average hovering around 8 hours or so. Our brains shoot for this amount of sleep to optimize how we perform during the day. Research shows that meeting your sleep need each night is a reliable predictor of every aspect of performant selling, from creativity to goal-setting.
If you’re consistently sleeping less than this amount, then you’re racking up sleep debt. Sleep debt is measured by the amount of sleep you owe yourself, relative to your sleep need, over the past two weeks.
Unfortunately, sleep debt hits sellers hard in the area of the brain they need most: the prefrontal cortex, which controls planning, organization, and other executive functioning abilities. Salespeople carrying sleep debt are therefore notably less productive, less sociable, and less able to lead.
On the other hand, making up sleep debt quantifiably raises sales success. After sellers at a Fortune 200 company used Rise to minimize their sleep debt over a period of 8 months, they reported a 14% increase in monthly revenue and a 50% increase in outbound sales calls.
Your Team Is Likely Underslept and Underperforming Already
If you think your team is safe from sleep debt and its consequences, including burnout … think again. First of all, approximately 70% of Americans admit that they’re sleep-deprived. Secondly, humans are experts at downplaying (or ignoring!) the effects of sleep debt. We’re bad at calculating our own sleep durations, and tend to overestimate how much time we spend asleep.
Sleep-deprived people also don’t have an accurate perception of their performance. They think that they’re operating as normal, or even better than normal, when really their cognitive skills have taken a measurable dive.
Over time, they acclimate to the effects of sleep loss, unaware that they’re adjusting to lower and lower standards for their work. They feel as though all is well, but their track records show a different story.
Sleep debt tracks the sleep you owe over two weeks, not just the last night or two. Its cumulative, chronic nature means that you carry it with you until you pay it back—it doesn’t fade away on its own.
The good news is, one night of awful sleep won’t have the same impact as many nights. If you’re sleeping well otherwise, you can offset that sleep debt easily. Likewise, one night of deep, sustained sleep won’t be enough to mitigate a heavy sleep debt load. To address it, you need to think long-term.
You also need to think holistically, which means restructuring your days as well as your nights. Your sleep hygiene refers to the set of behaviors that have an influence on your sleep, and many of these behaviors occur during waking hours. One of the most influential, as we’ll see in the next section, is your evening wind-down period.
Now that you have a better grasp on the significance of sleep, you can begin to nudge your team toward better sleep hygiene and away from burnout. One of the best ways to do so is to schedule and routinize an evening wind-down period before bed.
How Does Winding Down Help Your Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep debt is one of two essential elements of your sleep hygiene. The other is your circadian rhythm—the ebb and flow of energy and other factors that your body experiences throughout the day.
Purposefully aligning yourself with your circadian rhythm will put you in step with what your body naturally craves. Your rhythm has a bearing on everything from your sleep and wake times to your meal times to your most challenging work projects (the latter of which should be scheduled to correspond with your two daily energy peaks).
The internal clock that dictates your circadian rhythm is sensitive to several cues, but light and temperature are the most powerful. As you enter your evening wind-down period—ideally, about 2-3 hours before you go to sleep—you’re also entering what’s scientifically known as the Dim Light Melatonin Onset, or DLMO.
During DLMO, your brain perceives that the sun is dimming, and produces more of the sleep hormone melatonin in response. It’s priming you for bed, and it’s your job to work with it, not against it. That means avoiding any light source that will trick your brain into curbing its melatonin production. As you ready yourself for sleep, your body temperature also cools, further encouraging sleepiness.
Getting into the right mindset for your evening wind-down is also paramount to achieving deep, natural sleep. You want to feel relaxed and unburdened, so that the journey into sleep is a relatively smooth one. But often, people end up busy, anxious, and unable to fall asleep as quickly as they’d like.
When you’re not sleepy, and especially when you’re actively worried or engaged, you’re in a state of arousal. This is the antithesis of the relaxed mindset you want before bed. Arousal is encouraged by activities that demand a lot of attention and/or emotion, such as streaming an exciting television show, taking on another work task, or running through all of your thoughts and anxieties about the next day.
Anxious thoughts about work are a particular obstacle to a salesperson’s sleep. They don’t just keep you from falling asleep—they also disrupt the sleep you’re able to get, and make waking up in the morning more difficult. This is why it’s so important to mentally detach from work during your wind-down period.
As we’ve learned, catching up on sleep is the best way to prevent burnout, and the wind-down period certainly facilitates that goal. But it also fights back against burnout on its own, independent of sleep.
Setting aside time to consciously unplug from work will address another known cause of burnout: “thoughts of work during leisure time.” Psychological detachment from work—while you’re not at work—reduces the mental strain of burnout. It’s also been shown to elevate mood, reduce fatigue, and boost subsequent work performance.
Stressors that occur directly at work, such as demanding quotas, uncommunicative bosses, or difficult clients, also contribute to burnout. However, research indicates that it’s our response to stress, and our tactics for recovering from it, that affect our wellbeing the most.
The “sustained cognitive representation” of your stressors affects your body as well as your mind, and can lead to serious health consequences in addition to burnout. For example, we know that ruminating on past stressors and worrying about future ones can activate your autonomic nervous system for hours beyond the thoughts themselves, and even into your sleep. This “unconscious stress” takes a toll on your body, despite the fact that you’re not always aware of it.
Put another way, it’s not that you have to lead a big meeting that’s causing burnout and fatigue, necessarily—it’s the fact that you can’t stop thinking about the meeting, and haven’t empowered yourself to recover from the resultant anxiety. Your wind-down period is your time to do so.
What Does an Effective Wind-Down Period Look Like?
Hopefully, you now believe in the necessity of a nightly wind-down period as a sleep aid and an anti-burnout measure—but you may be wondering what exactly a wind-down period should include. Here are our recommendations for making the most of this window:
Be Dedicated and Consistent.
Keep the Lights Dim or Off.
Work with Your Body’s Natural Temperature Drop
Let Go Of Your Work-Related (and Other) Worries
“Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time”
Let’s zoom out a little further. In order to have a stress-free wind-down period at the end of your day, you’ll need to look at what comes before it. This is the last step of the big-picture approach to improving your sleep hygiene and avoiding burnout—mapping out your day to suit your circadian and ultradian rhythms.
First of all, try to break free of the hourly schedule. Look at your day not as windows of time, but as fluctuations of energy. Just envisioning this outlook can be a liberating exercise, as we’re so accustomed to feeling the pressure of passing time. What if the numbers on the clock weren’t breathing down your neck? What if instead, you tuned into your natural inclinations toward productivity and rest?
Reimagining your day as a flow of energy plays into all of the goals we’ve covered thus far:
As a sales leader, you may feel that your employees should be steadily productive from the moment they arrive at work to the moment they clock out. But in actuality, their productivity rises and falls in conjunction with their energy peaks and dips, rather than with the timing of their work day.
Each of us has two energy peaks during our daily circadian rhythm—a morning peak and an evening peak. These peaks denote the best times to take on demanding, complex tasks, such as delivering a presentation, delving into a big project, or negotiating with troublesome clients. One person’s peak won’t occur at the same time as another’s, as circadian rhythms are unique to the individual.
Likewise, we each have a morning and an afternoon dip. These times are suited to passive tasks, like low-stakes email correspondences and routine admin work. They’re also when our emotional strength recharges. Without these dips, we’d run out of the energy to maintain the kind of positive, can-do attitude that’s so advantageous during the peaks.
Looking at the reliable rise and fall of circadian rhythms, it’s obvious that no employee can be an all-star for 100% of the work day. You can only benefit your team by understanding that they’ll perform differently according to where they are in their energy cycle—and that the dips represent essential recovery periods, not preventable slumps.
Ultradian Rhythms: Circadian Rhythm’s Smaller Sibling
In addition to your circadian rhythm, you also experience energy fluctuations as part of your body’s ultradian rhythms. These rhythms cover a smaller window of time. Whereas your circadian rhythm maps onto your entire day, ultradian rhythms take place over approximately 90 to 120 minutes.
During an ultradian rhythm, you progress from a high-energy productive state into a low-energy recovery state. Researcher Ernest Rossi has therefore divided ultradian rhythms into a format that’s eminently digestible to knowledge workers: he splits them into 90 minutes of activity, followed by 20 minutes of rest (hence his book’s title, The 20-Minute Break).
Those familiar with the Pomodoro technique—a strategy based around discrete chunks of disciplined work followed by shorter breaks—might recognize this presentation. However, Rossi and others argue that this isn’t just a technique that some people can adopt to help them stay on task. Rather, it’s a way of working that corresponds to your cognitive needs.
Those 20-minute breaks are key to maximizing your performance. Without them, you’ll grow mentally and emotionally fatigued, and lack the stamina to do your best work. Rossi suggests experimenting with the length of your activity and rest periods, as they don’t have to be exactly 90 and 20 minutes.
If they manage their energy rather than their time, your team members will fall into routines of productivity that feel organic and sustainable. They should be planning their work around the peaks and dips of their circadian rhythms, as well as the more frequent cycling of their ultradian rhythms.
The final step in this reframing of sleep and energy is for you to model the framework yourself. You’re a major source of inspiration and motivation for your team, and you have the sway to determine the office’s culture around business and rest.
If you devalue sleep, and ennoble the “always on” mentality, your team is likely to follow suit and suffer the consequences. On the other hand, research indicates that leaders who visibly support a healthy work-life balance and give employees control of their schedules have better-rested and more engaged teams.
Your employees are the most important element of your company, and burnout is not a problem that only affects the individual. To combat burnout and nurture productivity, you’ll need to enact a new vision for your team—one that reworks their daily and nightly routines to respect their need for recovery.
Learn more about Rise for sales teams.