Understanding sleep functioning of military personnel is important due to its affect on a variety of health outcomes and occupational performance. Increasingly, sleep literature is examining the relationship between supervisors’ behaviors and various sleep outcome variables for employees (i.e., sleep hygiene, sleep quantity and quality). Two specific examples of supervisor behavior being examined in sleep literature include sleep leadership (SL), and family supportive supervisor behavior (FSSB). SL refers to specific behaviors that supervisors engage in to deliberately improve employees’ sleep (e.g., educate employees on sleep hygiene). Family supportive supervisor behaviors (FSSB) refer to actions taken by a supervisor to support an employee’s family, non-work responsibilities while managing work responsibilities (e.g., allowing for flexible work hour). This research could be very helpful for mental health personnel embedded within operational military settings; it provides a basis for promoting health and occupational performance by targeting specific supervisor behaviors to improve sleep functioning of unit members.
Theory and Proposed Mechanisms of Actions
Literature examining the benefits of social support has established its usefulness in terms of both reducing stress and enhancing well-being for individuals. Applying these findings to sleep functioning and supervisor’s behavior Crain and Stevens (2018) proposed a work, non-work, sleep framework (WNS) based on the Conversation of Resource theory (COR). COR identifies social support (e.g., family supportive supervisor behaviors) as a primary resource that helps preserve valuable resources (e.g., sleep) and protects future resource loss thereby reducing stress (Hobfoll, 1989). The WNS states that individual attitudes, behaviors and states emerging in work and non-work have bi-directional associations with both sleep quantity and sleep quality (Gunia, Sipos, LoPresti, & Adler, 2015). Using the WNS framework, Gunia et al. (2015) suggest that supervisors affect sleep functioning of employees by using path-goal clarifying behavior (i.e., sleep leadership) and emotional support (Gunia et al., 2015). Path goal clarifying behavior refers to actions that help employees understand how to accomplish a particular goal (e.g., educating employees about good sleep hygiene). Emotional support refers to supportive behaviors such as asking employees how well they slept.
Research on Supervisor Behaviors and Employee Sleep Functioning
A recent study by Sianoja et al. (2019) examined the effects of sleep leadership (SL) and family supportive supervisor behaviors (FSSB) from servicemen in the Army National Guard (n = 180). The authors collected self-ratings from supervisors and their respective employee ratings about FSSBs and SL behaviors. Employee sleep outcomes were measured using both subjective ratings and objective ratings using wrist actigraphy to assess sleep quantity and sleep quality (i.e., total sleep time in minutes, Wake After Sleep Onset (WASO) duration in minutes, perceptions of sleep disturbance and daytime impairment due to poor sleep). Specifically, the authors examined whether supervisor or employee ratings of SL and FSSB would correspond to better sleep hygiene, sleep quantity and sleep quality.
Results for Employee Sleep Hygiene
Out of all the variables analyzed, only supervisor self-ratings on FSSB demonstrated a significant positive relationship with employee sleep hygiene practices (r = .20, p < .01). Sianoja et al. (2019) did not find any significant relationship between employee ratings of supervisor’s SL and FSSB and reported sleep hygiene practices (r = .13 p >.05, r = -.12 p >.05 respectively). Supervisor self-ratings for SL had a positive but non-significant relationship with employee reported sleep hygiene practices (r = .11, p > .05).
Results for Employee Sleep Quantity
The study found positive but non-significant relationships between supervisor’s ratings of SL and FSSB and subjective (r = .01 and r =.06, p > .05 respectively) and objective measurement (r = .14 and r = .03, p > .05 respectively) of employees sleep quantity (i.e., total sleep time). Employee ratings of supervisor SL and FSSB were non-significant for subjective ratings of sleep quantity (r = .11, and r = -.05, p > .05 respectively) and non-significant for SL and objective measures of sleep quantity for employees (r = -.03, p > 0.5). There was a significant negative relationship between employee ratings of supervisors FSSB and objective measurement of sleep quantity for employees (r = -.17, p < .05).
Results for Employee Sleep Quality
Sleep quality was assessed in two different ways. The first, examined employee ratings of sleep disturbance and sleep impairment using validated measures. The second method calculated total time spent during Wake After Sleep Onset (WASO) using the wrist actigraphy. Sianoja et al. (2019) did find a significant relationship between supervisor self-ratings on FSSB and employee ratings of sleep disturbance and sleep impairment (r = -.16 and -.20, p < .05). Employee ratings of supervisor SL demonstrated a significant relationship with sleep disturbance and sleep impairment (r = -.27, p <.01; r = -.19, p < .05 respectively) but not FSSB (r = .02, p > .05; r = -.03, p > .05). Findings from the study revealed no significant relationship between objective measure of sleep quality and supervisor or employee ratings of SL and FSSB (r = -.03, -.04, -.04, and 0.02, p > .05 respectively). The authors also did not find any significant relationship between supervisor self-ratings of SL and employee subjective ratings of sleep disturbance or sleep impairment (r = -.01, -.04, p > .05 respectively).
Discussion and Implications
Understanding sleep functioning of military members is critical given its affects on various health outcomes and occupational performance. With increased demand for mental health personnel to improve health and performance outcomes in operational settings, it is important to gain a better understanding of how specific supervisor behaviors can affect sleep outcomes. Two variables, SL and FSSB, were specifically examined by Sianoja et al. (2019) to assess their relationship with employees sleep hygiene, sleep quantity and quality. Results showed differences in the relationship between supervisor behaviors and different sleep outcomes for employees. Only supervisor self-ratings of FSSB demonstrated a significant relationship with employee sleep hygiene practices. Supervisor and employee ratings of SL and FSSB were not significantly related to subjective ratings of sleep quantity. Employee ratings of FSSB were significantly related to an objective measure of sleep quantity. Finally, Sianoja et al. (2019) did find a significant relationship between supervisor self-ratings on FSSB, employee ratings of SL, and employees subjective ratings of sleep quality (i.e., sleep disturbance and sleep impairment).
Overall, the construct of SL was not as strongly related to employee sleep functioning as well as FSSB. As a result, Sianoja et al. (2019) suggest that FSSB (e.g., increasing resources and decreasing stressors, changing the work environment, providing flexibility) may be more effective in promoting health sleep habits than supervisors encouraging good sleep. Sleep leadership (SL) as it currently being assessed relies on a strong educational component. That may be problematic as health literature has shown educational efforts may be less effective to making behavioral changes than environmental interventions. More research is needed to see if other sleep leadership behaviors need to be included to better understand the link between supervisor behavior and sleep functioning of employees.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Timothy Rogers, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Internship Behavioral Health Psychologist and serves as the Associate Program Director for the Air Force Clinical Psychology Internship Program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Texas.
Sianoja, M., Crain, T. L., Hammer, L. B., Bodner, T., Brockwood, K. J., LoPresti, M., & Shea, S. A. (2019). The relationship between leadership support and employee sleep. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000173