How do you sleep (and how’s it affecting your work)?
Are you tired? Let’s be honest, the answer for most of us sits somewhere between, ‘Yes, quite’ and ‘Could collapse any second’.
In his seminal book Why We Sleep1, Matthew Walker notes that two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. They do so despite the fact that the physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep are substantially worse than those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise. In fact, human beings are the only species on Earth that will deliberately deprive themselves of sleep without legitimate gain. Cutting back on sleep, often in favour of work– and in doing so imbuing our everyday routines with a heavy dose of masochism – has become the norm. And it’s having a seriously negative effect on people’s lives, both personal and professional.
Why don’t we sleep?
Margaret Thatcher famously slept only four hours a night. And this sleep (or lack thereof) came to represent something. A narrative developed around it, one that the iron lady and her team were more than happy to fuel. Thatcher’s lack of sleep, the narrative would have you believe, was yet further proof of her industriousness, her willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, with the obvious implication that people who were less successful (which, given she was the country’s leader, was everyone) were wasting their time with nightly slumbers. If these layabouts traded time sleeping for time working, then they too could soon become titans of their chosen field. Sleep, in other words, was just another form of laziness.
It’s a fallacy that’s permeated modern culture, with billionaire CEOs and lifestyle gurus perennially endorsing wake-up times that would have even cockerels’ eyes watering, all in pursuit of the past decade’s holy grail: productivity.
The 5am club! Seize the day! The early bird gets the worm! Whatever the slogan may be, we’ve been conditioned to believe that time in bed is time misspent, even though every morsel of scientific evidence points to the contrary. Studies show that reducing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for even a single night could cause a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent2, while also doubling the person’s risk of sustaining an occupational injury. People who average less than seven hours of sleep are nearly three times more likely to develop a cold3, not to mention suffer dire effects on their mental health4.
Business leaders like to offer inspirational quotes about their work ethic, like Ari Onassis’ famous, “Don’t sleep too much or you’ll wake up a failure. If you sleep three hours less each night for a year, you will have an extra month and a half to succeed in.”5 Perhaps such advice truly worked for him – he certainly found the requisite levels of success, after all. But the amount of sleep we need varies widely from person to person and is based more on genetics than anything else6. Such a quote suggests Mr Onassis was able to function and even thrive on very little. But the truth for most people that if you sleep three hours less each night for a year, all you will have to show for it is an extra month and a half in which to be miserable and incompetent. The early bird may get the worm, but before you test that theory by dragging yourself out from your duvet’s warmth into a cold, dark morning, you best be sure that you’re really a ‘bird’ – because the saying indicates that the early worm gets devoured fast.
Sleep and the black mirror
Screens are a problem. We all know it. We’ve been told enough times. And yet, when bedtime approaches, how many of us truly disconnect? Blue light from our computers, TVs, tablets and smartphones suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone ‘melatonin’7, making it harder for us to get to sleep. If this was a problem before the pandemic, it has been infinitely exacerbated with the increased prominence of home and hybrid working. The dividing lines that separate our personal and professional lives grow thinner and more penetrable with each passing year.
Many modern work cultures expect their employees to be “always-on”, whether that’s explicitly said or simply made obvious, with ominous implied consequences for those who dare view non-working hours as a brief window of respite. As such, workers are glued to their screens too late which causes them to sleep less, which in turn causes them to work less productively the following day due to that lack of sleep, which in turn causes them to stay up later and work harder to catch up, until they’re sent spiralling into a Catherine wheel of exhaustion and poor performance. It’s unsustainable, with a hugely negative impact on workers, but on businesses too.
The problem in numbers
A 2007 study9 found that fatigue was costing US companies around $136.4 billion dollars a year, $1,967 per employee. Unsurprisingly, with sleep patterns having worsened significantly in the years since, more recent numbers suggest the economic costs of sleep deprivation in 2015 ranged between $280 and $411 billion US dollars10. Sleep deprivation is also the leading cause of absenteeism and was thought to be responsible for 1.23 million lost working days in the US in the same year11. If such numbers were caused by any other aspect of a business, leaders would work to address it immediately, so why not with this?
As Professor Vicki Culpin, author of The Wake-up Call: The importance of sleep in organizational life, notes12:
It is common for managers and colleagues to look at a lack of focus or motivation, irritability, and bad decision making as being caused by poor training, organizational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep.
On the employee side, meanwhile, lack of sleep has been shown to lead to worse job performance, productivity, career progression and satisfaction, and to increase job-related accidents, absenteeism, and counterproductive work behaviours13. While better sleep has been linked to improved memory and learning, as well as being pivotal for our cardiovascular health and the functioning of our immune system14.
Sleep hygiene and the role of employers
There are many ways to go about improving your sleep hygiene. You can create a more regular sleep routine, in which you go to bed and wake at the same time every day. You can exercise more (though avoid doing so close to bedtime, as exercising too late can affect sleep negatively). You can avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed, as well as eschewing your phone/TV/tablet for a good book or some other such blue-light-free activity.
Employers have a role to play too. Bad leaders tend to add to their employees’ levels of stress, which can affect their sleep, especially if they’re being asked to work unrealistic hours and given no time to detach. Good employers ensure their staff are happy and engaged because they know that’s how to get the best of them. Ensuring employees are well rested is a huge part of that. It’s the humane thing to do, but it’s also profitable. Before splashing cash on flashy motivational speakers or intensive retraining courses, any leader or worker looking for simple and immediate ways to improve professional performance might want to try starting with something simpler: sleep.
1 Walker, M. (2018). Why we sleep. Penguin Books.