Arianna Huffington and I have at least two things in common: We both wrote books about being fearless and we both care deeply about the importance of sleep. As a psychotherapist and lifestyle expert, I pay close attention to the sleep habits of my patients knowing sleep deprivation can have devastating effects on the mind and body.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Huffington about the sleep crisis and a world where you can sleep your way to the top and you won't be looked at as an unsavory character, where you're encouraged by management to snooze at work, and where sleeping longer will earn you a cash reward from your employer. Sound unreal? Well, it isn't. Ms. Huffington writes about her vision for a society and workplace culture where sleep is prioritized over pushing the limits and burning the candle at both ends in her new book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.
Here's part of my interview with her:
JA: In your book you talk about how you had a wake-up call after collapsing from exhaustion. If this defining moment hadn't occurred, how do you think you'd be right now?
AH: I'd like to think that if I hadn't had my wake-up call, I'd still have somehow found my way to a healthier relationship with sleep. But if I didn't, I'm certain I'd still be shortchanging sleep, with catastrophic consequences. This way of living had its roots in a very flawed definition of success, since I was buying into our collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for success.
We founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world's 100 Most Influential People. I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realized, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way.
JA: In your book you refer to our "current sleep crisis." What's the ultimate cost of sleep deprivation?
AH: Lack of sleep is often the culprit behind anxiety, stress, depression, and a myriad of health problems. It's only relatively recently that we've come to fully grasp the medical consequences of sleep deprivation. In the 1970s, there were only three centers in the United States devoted to sleep disorders. By the 1990s, that number had swelled to more than 300. Today there are more than 2,500 accredited sleep centers.
And the cost goes beyond the consequences on our physical and mental health. Today, so many of us fall into the trap of sacrificing sleep in the name of productivity. But, ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, collectively adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the U.S. economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused).
JA: The job market continues to be highly competitive and people are often expected to put in long hours and be available after hours. For many people succeeding in a start-up and the corporate setting means having an attitude of machismo and wearing the badge of sleep deprivation proudly. How do you combat this and suggest putting a stop to burning the candle on both ends?
AH: In much of our culture, especially in the workplace and in the startup world, going without sleep is considered a badge of honor. But again, since this is linked to a desire for high performance, I want to point out that there's no better performance enhancer than sleep.
Perhaps those who equate sleep with laziness or lack of dedication can be convinced of the benefits of sleep by looking at what's going on in a world that is the ultimate in pragmatism, where performance and winning are everything: sports. To professional athletes, sleep is not about spirituality, work-life balance, or even health and well-being; it's all about performance. It's about what works, about using every available tool to increase the chances of winning.
JA: You're partnering with major companies such as Uber, Marriott, and JetBlue and they seem to be getting on board with your effort to value sleep. Your company even offers sleep pods to employees to take a snooze. Sleeping on the job seems so counter-intuitive to what most people believe. How can you convince companies to allow their employees to take naps? And is the theory to take naps so you can be more productive or is it take naps but extend your work day longer?
AH: The business world is waking up to the high cost of sleep deprivation on productivity, creativity, health care, and ultimately the bottom line. And we have a growing number of business leaders realizing that well-rested employees are better employees.
As for naps, they're great for us even when we are getting good sleep at night. According to David Randall, the author of Dreamland, even a short nap "primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately."
At HuffPost, there was skepticism when we first installed nap rooms in New York in 2011. HuffPosters were reluctant to be seen walking into a nap room in the middle of a bustling newsroom in "the city that never sleeps." But now they are perpetually full, and we're spreading nap rooms around the world, starting with our London office. And more and more companies are installing nap rooms, including Ben & Jerry's, Zappos, and Nike. I expect the nap room to soon become as universal as the conference room.
And it's not just productivity and creativity. It's a broader cultural shift, where we're redefining what we value, and changing workplace culture so that walking around sleep-deprived becomes stigmatized instead of lauded!
JA: I tell clients to use their beds for sleep and sex only. What's the secret to getting people to limit their bedroom activities to these?
AH: Excellent advice. One pretty effective way to get the message across is telling them this: regardless of where you sleep, getting more sleep can lead to getting more sex, at least for women, according to a 2015 study. Researchers measured the duration of women's sleep and compared it to their level of sexual desire the next day. They found that every additional hour of sleep brought with it a 14 percent rise in the likelihood of having some kind of sexual activity with her partner. So more sleep is better-- especially if you want more sex.
JA: When researching and writing your book what surprised you most?
AH: I was surprised by one particular study that that put the effects of sleep deprivation into dramatic perspective. It found that after being awake for seventeen to nineteen hours, which is a normal day for many of us, we can experience the same levels of cognitive impairment equal to having a blood alcohol level of .05 percent -- just under the limit for being declared legally drunk in many U.S. states. And if we're awake just a few hours more, we're up to the equivalent of .1 percent--over the legally drunk threshold. And yet, that's how many of us, including a lot of our leaders and politicians, are operating every day. But no one would try to get a promotion, or try to get someone to vote for them, by bragging about how they're effectively drunk all the time.