Your Sales Team is Probably Thinking About Burnout the Wrong Way

Burnout threatens the best of sales teams. Fight it by focusing on recovery, not on hours worked. 

Burnout is a serious risk at any job, but with the constant pressures and quotas, those in the sales world are particularly susceptible. And as working from home has become the norm for many, the line between being at work and off the clock is blurring. Your employees don’t have their commute, dress code, or in-person meetings to preserve the ordinary boundaries between professional zones and relaxation. As a result, the threat of burnout is looming large. 

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How can team leaders keep burnout at bay? It may surprise you, but the first step is prioritizing your team’s wellbeing by focusing on their sleep.


The No. 1 Cause of Burnout Isn’t Stress, It’s Sleep Loss

Burnout is more than feeling tired. It’s a state of prolonged exhaustion that affects all faculties–mental, emotional, and physical. Put plainly, being burnt-out means depletion across the board–you don’t have the mental energy to do your job well, the emotional energy to feel positive, or the physical energy to take care of yourself. 

Historically, chronic stress has been the go-to culprit, with studies citing several distinct stressors as playing key roles–i.e. high work demands, lack of support at work, job insecurity, and the inability to mentally let go of work during off hours, among others. However, recent research has found a causal link between sleep loss and burnout, suggesting that undersleeping may have an even more profound impact on burnout than stress. 

But scientific literature aside, the connection is also an intuitive one: When your salespeople are skimping on sleep, it impacts their focus, motivation and mental and emotional fortitude (among a host of other things), which, in turn, impacts work performance. And when they’re not able to do their best work during business hours, dedicated sellers will often let work tasks and preoccupations encringe on what should be their downtime. Without this reliable “me” time, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish and sustain healthy routines foundational for quality sleep – and the cycle goes on and on. 

And what’s more is that stress over decreased productivity easily leads to overthinking, or rumination: Your sellers might find themselves going through their to-do lists again and again, reliving past stressors, or worrying about what their recent dip in performance means for the future. Repetitive thoughts like these can cause a strong physical response–muscle tension, elevated heart rate, etc.–a state of arousal that makes it exceptionally difficult to fall and stay asleep. 

Thankfully, research also indicates that the connection works both ways: Reducing fatigue through sleep is a surefire way to fight back against burnout.


Reframing the Role of Sleep for Sales Teams

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:

  1. Recovery is essential to productivity.

Many employees adopt an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality at work, thinking that more time awake will yield better results. But this philosophy is misguided—to be at your most productive, your brain and body need regular, sustained periods of rest.

Think about someone who’s trying to build muscle in the gym. After each workout, the body literally requires sleep for tissue repair and muscle growth. Our brains work similarly: During sleep, your brain conducts a multitude of intricate processes that ready you for the next day–consolidating memory, archiving information you’ve learned, rebuilding your emotional fortitude, etc. 

Skimp on this daily recharging period, and you’ll find yourself at a serious cognitive and emotional disadvantage. 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 fundamental to growth and success.

  1. Sleep debt is the No. 1 KPI in sales.

Every one of us has an innate sleep need, with the average hovering around eight hours or so. If you’re consistently sleeping less than this amount you’re racking up sleep debt, which is the measure of how much sleep you owe yourself, relative to your personal 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 high sleep debt are therefore notably less productive, less sociable and less able to lead.

The good news is that lowering sleep debt quantifiably raises sales success. After sellers at a Fortune 200 company used Rise Science to minimize their sleep debt over a period of eight months, they reported a 14 percent increase in monthly revenue and a 50 percent increase in outbound sales calls.

  1. 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. Approximately 70 percent of Americans admit they’re sleep-deprived. And humans are experts at downplaying (or ignoring) the side-effects. We also overwhelmingly tend to overestimate how much time we spend asleep.

And sleep-deprived people don’t have an accurate perception of their performance. They think that they’re operating as normal, or even optimally, when their cognitive skills have in fact taken a measurable dive.

Over time, people 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.

  1. Improving sleep hygiene requires a long-term approach.

Sleep debt tracks the sleep you owe over two weeks, not just the last night or two. Its cumulative nature means that you carry it with you until you pay it back.

And unfortunately, one night of deep, sustained sleep won’t be enough to mitigate a heavy sleep debt load. Rather, you need to help your team strategize for the long-term. 

It’s worth stating again that combating sleep debt and subsequent burnout isn’t just about the hours you spend in bed with your lights off. Sleep hygiene refers to the set of behaviors that have an influence on your sleep and many of these take place during waking hours. 

One particularly impactful facet of sleep hygiene that we’ll dig into here is called the evening wind-down, which is something you and your team can get started on right away. 


Building a Buffer Between Work and Sleep

Cultivating an intentional evening wind-down routine is a straightforward and powerful way to begin improving sleep. To do this, your team will need to rethink the two to three hours leading up to their bedtimes. For people with packed schedules, this may seem like a lot of time, but it doesn’t mean dropping everything. The evening wind-down is about working with your biology and environment to perform small, purposeful actions that are scientifically proven to lead to better sleep. 

What an Effective Wind-Down Period Looks Like

Here are our recommendations for making the most of your evenings:

  1. Be dedicated and consistent
  • Schedule your wind-down period with the same commitment as you would any sales task. Remember, recovery is essential for productivity. 
  • Make it the same time each night. Regularity is huge when it comes to retraining your body and brain.

2. Keep the lights dim or off

  • Turn off as many lights as you can. Sub in candles for electric lighting, or use dimmer lamps.
  • Avoid exposure to the blue light that comes from your screens, which tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. We recommend wearing blue light blocking glasses if you can’t completely ditch your screens.

3. Keep it cool

  • As your body readies for sleep, your temperature drops slightly. Keeping your bedroom cool helps facilitate this biological shift. We recommend 65–68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Before bed, take a hot shower or bath. Hot water brings blood to the surface of your skin, resulting in a sleep-promoting dip in your core temperature. 

4. Let go of your work-related (and other) worries

  • Try to detach from thoughts of work and other stressors. Immerse yourself in total me-time–meditate, do yoga, read, or try other activities that clear your mind.
  • Refrain from activities that promote arousal. That means minimal Netflix, video games, social media, etc. And definitely no work tasks! You want this to be a period of mental deceleration.
  • If you’re prone to ruminating, you can try what’s called a brain dump. Here you’ll give yourself 15 minutes or so to focus on and write down all of the items that are causing you to worry. Offloading these thoughts in a brief time slot like this can help you to purge them before bed, allowing you to fall asleep without interruption.

Experiment with different relaxation techniques designed to lower stress and promote sleep. These can include diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening to ambient sounds.


Lead Your Team to Better Sleep and Better Sales

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. On the other hand, leaders who visibly support a healthy work-life balance and encourage “logging off” from work during non-work hours 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.

  • Originally published November 6, 2020