Date posted: 28/02/2017 5 min read

In praise of sleep

Long hours and a culture of working through fatigue are stealing one of our most vital natural health resources.

In brief

  • People are waking up to the corrosive impact the "productive non-sleeper" concept is having on our working life.
  • The myth of “sleep is for wimps” is hard to shake and professionals such as accountants and lawyers are some of the worst culprits.
  • Sleep has a unique contribution to performance that nothing else, not caffeine nor stimulants, can deliver.

By Ben Power.

The great American inventor Thomas Edison was a famed enemy of sleep.

“There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” he said, declaring sleep a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.

That attitude isn’t surprising from the man who invented the electric light bulb and killed eons of years going to sleep as light faded in the early evening.

Edison reportedly slept just four hours a day and hounded his employees to stay awake. Edison himself told how his sleep-deprived staff would crawl off to corners and crevices below stairways to try and get some shut eye – but he employed watchers to haul them out and back to work.

Other famous non-sleepers include former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. US President elect Donald Trump is reportedly a member of the “sleepless elite” surviving on just four hours a night.

This can be problematic though, because Edison’s attitude, and the legendary “productivity” of non-sleepers, has shaped our current attitude towards sleep and work.

Sleep is a waste of time?

People are finally waking up to the corrosive impact this cultural concept of the productive non-sleeper is having on our working life. This requires challenging myths around work and sleep, highlighting tiredness’s shocking impact on work performance, and providing solutions for staff to sleep more – even at work.

The “sleep is for wimps” attitude is a trope that people make to demonstrate commitment, says Drew Dawson, a sleep and fatigue expert and director of the Appleton Institute at Central Queensland University’s Adelaide Campus.

Dawson says that, when examined, the grand claims of non-sleepers evaporate.

“Winston Churchill, Rudd, Thatcher... when we’ve gone on to verify it, very few sleep as little as they claim. Most had a lot of catch-up sleep.”

The “sleep is for wimps” attitude is a trope that people make to demonstrate commitment.

As did Edison. Edison slept two to three hours a night, Dawson says, but had a nap every afternoon.

The old hypocrite clearly lacked empathy as well. While he hounded his “boys” to stay awake when he was elevated to boss, Dawson says that the inventor himself was sacked three or four times for sleeping on the job, including when he was a telegraph boy.

But the myth of “sleep is for wimps” is hard to shake and professionals such as accountants and lawyers are some of the worst culprits.

“The problem is we have a culture where long working hours is a demonstration of commitment, particularly in professions,” Dawson says. “Long working hours are worn like a badge of honour.”

This society-wide eye roll at sleep has led to the inevitable – a sleep-deprived workforce.

Neuroscientist, Russell Foster, in his TED Talk Why do we Sleep notes that in the 1950s we averaged eight hours a night but today that has fallen to just six hours. Teenagers need nine hours, but are only getting six, which might explain your feral teen and their inability to execute a simple order at KFC. The worst victims are shift workers, around 20% of the working population, who are getting around five hours. Throw jet lag on top and the average worker is exhausted.

Eye opener

The solution doesn’t lie in an extra latte and muscling through the day, because sleep has a unique contribution to performance that nothing else, not caffeine nor stimulants, can deliver. While sleep is sometimes viewed as an “illness, a complete waste of time”, according to Foster, it is actually vitally important to work performance and our broader lives.

Sleep helps restoration – some genes, associated with restoration in metabolic pathways, are only turned on by sleep. Sleep conserves calories (though only a hot dog bun’s worth). And, arguably most importantly, sleep assists in brain processing and memory consolidation. Foster says a night of sleep triples your ability to invent novel solutions to complex problems. The reverse is true. A lack of sleep means bad work.

“Research shows that for people who don’t get enough sleep, their quality of work decreases,” Dawson says.

He cites ousted Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

“Most of his downfall can be attributed to lapses in judgement when he was sleep deprived.”

Bill Clinton agreed, saying in his long political career, most of the mistakes he made was when he was too tired. Foster says lack of sleep means poor memory, poor creativity, increased impulsiveness and overall poor judgement. Indeed, Harvard Medical School research found sleep deprivation was like being drunk.

What’s more, tiredness increases workers’ chances of obesity by 50%, boosts their craving for stimulants and massively increases stress. Sleeplessness not only devastates memory but exposes people to a greater risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. And, finally, sleep deprived staff are irritable.

But there is another serious consequence of lack of sleep. “People die,” Dawson says. “Professionals going to and from work have fallen asleep,” he says. Dropping off at the wheel of a car can have deadly consequences.

Snooze rebels

But there is some sign the message is getting through to our weary brains that sleep matters. Good staff are rebelling. Senior managers have brought a problem to Dawson’s team – they’re interviewing job candidates but the brilliant ones don’t take the job. The best candidates want to know what quality of life they would have. If the working hours [lack of sleep] were terrible, they didn’t’ take it.

The young are rebelling too. Dawson’s wife, a doctor, remembers the gruelling hours young medical staff were forced to work 20 to 30 years ago. “The new generation of medical staff won’t do it,” Dawson says.

Some managers are looking at ways for staff to sleep more.That requires an attitude change.

Some managers, too, are looking at ways for staff to sleep more.That requires an attitude change. Dawson himself reversed his workplace culture by flipping the “sleep is for wimps” paradigm around. During performance appraisals, his staff told him how hard they were working. He countered that their tiredness meant they weren’t coping.

“As soon as I said that, nobody started working long hours anymore. It [long hours] became a sign of an inability to cope.”

Other managers are exploring the role of naps in the workplace.

Nap time

The afternoon nap is a staple of some cultures, In Spain society slows, the shops and cafes close, and people head home for an afternoon sleep, siesta. It’s also common in other Mediterranean countries and hot or tropical environments where it is too hot to work during many parts of the day.

Another ancient culture, Japan, has developed the concept of “inemuri”, which translates to “being present while sleeping”. It means that even falling asleep during meetings or at work – a career disaster for Westerners – can be socially acceptable. Indeed with the right posture and seniority, it can be a sign of temporary exhaustion from dedication to the job.

Modern research highlights the power of the nap. As Greg McKeown, a “reformed sleep denialist”, in his book Essentialism notes, K Anders Ericsson – the man who discovered the rule that expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice – performed a study of violin prodigies.

The best violinists practised the most but the very best did something else – slept and napped more. Not only did they sleep 8.6 hours each day, but they spent an average of 2.8 hours napping in the afternoon – two hours longer than average. Sleep allowed them to regenerate so they could practise with greater gusto.

Dawson says that in Western society there has been limited incorporation of naps into the workplace in areas such as the medical profession, nursing and some trades.

Google has introduced a nap pod. McKeown fell asleep in the pod and woke up, after some gentle vibration, feeling clearer, sharper and more alert. But not many staff were using it – in the week he was there, just one. Even at Google, it must still be considered bad form to head off to the pod and sleep.

McKeown also notes calls for friendlier policies for staff travel and jet lag. Charles Czeisler, a Harvard sleep specialist, has proposed a policy that no employee should be expected to drive into work after a red-eye flight.

Office napping might be a step too far for the moment, but there is no doubt that a good night’s sleep, at least, is slowly becoming recognised as being important to work performance.

Edison may disagree (and he did have lightbulbs to flog), but there are many reasons to go to bed. For us mere mortals who want to perform at work, it’s back to the cave days, and a good night’s sleep.

Ben Power is a freelance writer and communication consultant.

This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.