Traditionally, in the macho corporate world how little sleep you get is often a badge of honour.
High-profile bosses such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Fiat Chrysler’s Sergio Marchionne all boast of thriving on just four hours sleep a night. Basically “sleep is for wimps” and the sooner you get up after you’ve gone to bed the better is the gung-ho attitude. Yet what if the opposite was true: that the more hours you had in bed, the better it was for your career?
“It was unsustainable. I couldn’t do my job any more,” a 23-year-old management consultant at a big corporate firm tells me.
The issue was sleep, or rather the lack of it. She had never been a good sleeper, but starting her first professional role pushed her to breaking point. “It was a shock compared to university. Expectations had increased and I was juggling a lot of balls. I had a harder time winding down and disconnecting,” she says. While she fell asleep easily, she would wake up again just four hours later with her mind racing and was unable to drop off again. At work she found it hard to concentrate and couldn’t produce as much in the same time. At weekends she avoided socialising to try to recuperate ahead of work on Monday again. In the end she paid to do a one-day sleep course which gave her techniques to help her cope, including breathing exercises, taking short breaks to switch off during the day, as well as regular exercise. The experience was so helpful that she told her employer, who is now funding some places on the course for staff. She believes people should be more open about how not getting enough sleep affects their performance at work, although she’s not willing for me to publish either her name or company.
In fact, as I find out when trying to speak to people for this article, while some firms are beginning to look at how well – or not – their employees sleep, they’re rarely willing to say so publicly.
One exception is accountancy firm PwC. Three years ago, the blue-chip firm included a section on the importance of sleep as part of a training programme on resilience. The course, which was done by 4,500 of its UK staff, focused on how to keep physically and mentally well while doing a demanding, fast-paced job. The level of interest was so high that 18 months ago the firm opened up the course to all its UK staff. As part of this, it brought in a specialist sleep expert to run sessions and put tips on sleeping prominently on its intranet.
It’s still too early to measure the impact of the training, but anecdotal feedback has been positive and the firm is currently assessing additional options to help staff improve their sleep, such as apps and online training courses. “Apart from doing the right thing, there’s a hard commercial edge to this. Sleep is absolutely crucial to performance,” says Sally Evans, senior manager of diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing at PwC.
Yet while the detrimental effects of not getting enough sleep on work performance and health have been well documented, there is far less research on the opposite: the benefits of more sleep.
One exception is a Stanford University School of Medicine study which found basketball players at elite college level were able to improve their on-court performance by increasing their sleep to 10 hours a night for five to seven weeks. In the UK, research by the Rand Corporation, based on data from 21,822 employees, found that the productivity of those who slept between seven and eight hours a night was significantly better than those who slept less than five hours a night. Similarly, a recent survey of more than 7,000 US adults found people who reported getting more sleep also had a higher overall sense of well-being than those who said they got less sleep.
But surely how well you sleep is a personal matter. Is it really appropriate for an employer to get involved?
Sleep and insomnia specialist Dr Guy Meadows, the founder of sleep consultancy Sleep To Perform, says it is not about forcing people, but giving them the information they need to “make the right choice”. “In the past sleeping was referred to as cheating. The tide is changing. You can’t get away from the wealth of scientific research showing sleep deprivation is mentally, emotionally and physically damaging,” he says. He started running a programme aimed specifically at companies after several firms came to him saying that internal surveys had highlighted sleep as a major problem.
“People were saying they were stressed and couldn’t switch off.”
Dr Guy Meadows’ tips for better sleeping:
- Everyone has a different inbuilt, genetic number of hours they need to sleep ranging from four to 12 hours. Most people (90%) need between seven and eight hours sleep a night
- Make time for yourself during the working day, take moments to switch off
- Set an alarm to go to bed
- Stop watching box sets until late at night
- Don’t have your mobile phone in your bedroom, the blue light it emits reduces sleep quality
The consultancy, whose clients include PwC, Lloyds, Unilever, Olympus, Ogilvy & Mather and smoothie-maker Innocent, initially asks employees to fill out details about their sleep and then it gives them a score so they know how well they’re doing, before giving them tools to improve it.
All of this data is anonymous and only shared with the employer as averages.
For companies, paying to help improve employees’ sleep and prevent them “burning out” or making costly mistakes makes “valuable sense”, he argues. But in an increasingly global world where employees are often required to travel or take calls from overseas at unsociable hours, can check work emails around the clock and are able to work from home as easily as they do in the office, is getting more sleep really realistic?
Nancy Rothstein, who consults and lectures on sleep wellness to employers, says it is but only if corporate culture changes accordingly and if more people are willing to talk openly about the issue.
If a senior executive is sending emails into the small hours, or doing long days then those lower down the hierarchy will feel obliged to follow suit, she says. Addressing this, she admits, is a relatively slow process with the idea of sleep as a company issue still new, but she believes it is “an executive imperative”.
“The culture we’ve created is not sustainable. Everyone’s crying, ‘I can’t keep this up.'”
For the graduate management consultant the change has been that she can now keep up with her job’s demands. While she still has sleepless nights, these periods now last for three nights not three weeks.
“And when it does happen I don’t go into panic mode. I know I have the tools to deal with it,” she says.