Career advice

Women’s career ambitions impacted by the quality of their sleep, study reveals

Not feeling too ambitious today? Wondering where your drive to take over the corner office went? It could just be the lack of a good night's sleep.

A new study out of the University of Washington found that for women, in particular, quality of sleep can impact more than just mood; it can also affect the drive to advance in your career.

For this research, over a two-week period, 135 volunteers reported on how well they slept, what their mood was in the morning, as well as later in the day, and how determined they were to strive for greater status and responsibility on the job. This generated more than 2,200 reports for the researchers to analyze. One of the key comparisons they made was between the responses of female and male participants.

The results showed that when women were able to get a good night's sleep, their moods were enhanced the following day, and they had more ambition at work. On the flip side, when they only got a poor night's sleep, they were in a more negative mood and felt less inclined to focus on achievements on the job.

The male and female participants both reported having good and bad sleep quality over the course of the study period, with no gender difference noted in how well they were able to sleep. However, while women more frequently reported lower levels of ambition for career advancement on days following a night of poor sleep, the scientists did not find the same correlation between men's quality of sleep and their job aspirations.

Lead author Leah Sheppard, an associate professor in WSU’s Carson College of Business, explains. “When women are getting a good night’s sleep and their mood is boosted, they are more likely to be oriented in their daily intentions toward achieving status and responsibility at work,” she said. “If their sleep is poor and reduces their positive mood, then we saw that they were less oriented toward those goals.”

The study authors could only speculate about the reasons why the quality of one's sleep and its impact on mood affects women’s ambition but not men’s. They theorize that it might be connected to gender differences in emotion regulation as well as cultural expectations of how men and women approach work, or some combination of these and other factors.

For example, the stereotypes of men being more ambitious than women could apply more pressure on them to climb the corporate ladder, possibly making poor sleep quality less likely to deter men from their aspirations at work.

Gender stereotypes aside, the study authors suggest that this research comes as positive news for women looking to advance their careers. For example, there are some practical steps they can take to maintain a consistently high level of ambition. These include practicing meditation to help with both sleep and emotion regulation, putting better boundaries on work hours, and of course, simply striving to get better sleep.

“It’s important to be able to connect aspirations to something happening outside the work environment that is controllable,” said Sheppard. “There are lots of things that anyone can do to have a better night’s sleep and regulate mood in general.”

So how much sleep do we really need?

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society have found that adults should be getting at least seven hours of sleep per night in order to achieve optimal levels of mental and physical health. Getting less than seven hours of sleep has been linked to numerous health problems from obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes to cancer and Alzheimer’s. That's not to mention the negative effects of irritability, personality changes, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression that can stem from being overtired, or the safety issues related to drowsy driving.

Getting too little or only poor-quality sleep can also reduce your body's immunity to infections such as the flu or the common cold.

How to get a good night's sleep.

Limit screen time before bed. This can be challenging for many of us, but try switching off all of your devices at least an hour before going to sleep and use that time to unwind and disconnect from the digital world. The light of mobile screens and constant stimulation from communication, news, and social updates interfere with our ability to sleep well.

Exercise regularly. Try to get some exercise every day. This doesn't have to mean a high-intensity cardio workout or pumping iron at the gym. Even a brisk 20-minute walk per day can be good for your mood, body, and quality of sleep.

Maintain a sleep routine. Try to go to bed at close to the same time every night. Wide variations in sleep times from going to bed at 10:00 pm one night to pulling an all-nighter another can negatively impact your body's ability to form healthy and reliable sleep patterns.

While getting a good night's sleep can be beneficial for everyone, women in particular should make sure they are getting the recommended seven hours if they really want to lean into work.

You can read more details from the Washington State University study here.

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