Sleep. Are you getting enough? For more and more people these days the answer to that question seems to be ‘no’. To quote 1980s rocker Jon Bon Jovi, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
This is a key area of interest to me currently. As a proud father to a 6 month old boy, I can certainly relate to other new parents who gripe about broken slumber. Between the night feeds, nappy changes and general whinging I can confidently say I haven’t slept for longer than 5 hours in the last 6 months.
But times are tough; business is global, job security ever more fragile. If you want to get on – or simply be kept on – you have got to be ‘available’ round the clock. There is apprehension over job security, leading to overwork, anxiety and worry about sleep. So having spent 12 hours at work, people then come home and lie in bed unable to drop off, fretting about whether they’ll still have a job to be stressed out by in the morning.
So why is sleep one of the first things we’re willing to sacrifice as the demands in our lives keep rising? We continue to live by a bizarre durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity and our productivity. That’s why Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
In a 2011 international study by the US National Sleep Foundation, 18% of Brits reported sleeping fewer than six hours a night during the working week, roughly twice as many people as in most other countries. Only America and Japan slept less, at 21% and 19% respectively.
Unfortunately, embedded cultural traditions dismiss sleep as a waste of time. Since inventor Thomas Edison declared sleep “an absurdity, a bad habit” a century ago, many business leaders have promoted a cult of overextended, caffeine fuelled wakefulness. From stock brokers monitoring global financial markets at all hours of the day, young associates preparing for a big case – a sizable contingent of self-disciplined professionals continue to perpetuate unhealthful patterns by pushing themselves and others under their control to turn work into a restless marathon.
The research shows that most of us can’t function properly on too little kip. Studies of army officers show that those who have had only three hours’ sleep take 20 minutes longer to come round and get a handle on a fast-moving crisis than those who have had an hour or two more. In the business work those who get enough sleep take an average of three days more sick leave a year than well-rested colleagues. At an estimated average cost of £93.50 a day for each employee, the annual bill for sleepless nights totals £1.6bn, healthcare group Bupa estimates.
The cost of a bad night’s sleep is not limited to sick days – staff are also less motivated and productive. Half of us drag ourselves into work feeling overtired more than 20 times a year and when worn out, workers are 23% less satisfied with their jobs and 24% admitted to low levels of productivity, the poll of around 10,000 adults showed.
Poor decision-making and a decreased capacity for creative thinking are other consequences of a serious lack of sleep. It can also make you impulsive, according to Professor Jim Horne of the sleep research centre at Loughborough University. ‘When you haven’t had enough sleep, there is a tendency for you to latch on to random factors and hope for the best. You lose your ability to see the wider picture’, he says.
Fortunately, there is a heartening appreciation of the value of sleep-promoting policies and practices within the business community. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington said recently that sleep is often ignored to being successful. ‘You know all those clichés that sleep is for losers? Forget that. Sleep deprivation is for losers. Sleep-deprived people make the wrong decisions.’ Arianna Huffington is a role model in this regard – she has introduced practical reforms in her own company. The state-of-the-art nap rooms at the New York offices of the Huffington Post allow employees a productivity-enhancing respite. Other major employers permitting and even encouraging napping on their premises include Nike, Google, and Time Warner.
So how much sleep is enough? The old rule of thumb is that adults need seven or eight hours a night, but this average figure conceals individual requirements varying from as little as four hours to as much as 11. So it really is perfectly possible for one person to be knackered after six hours’ kip while another is bright-eyed after only four.
Whatever goes on after your head hits the pillow, the secret to getting more and better sleep is to try not to worry too much about it. Sleep arises naturally as a by-product of being relaxed and calm. It is an outcome; we should try to obsess about it less and just let it be – we’ll all feel – and perform better for it.