Ernest Hemingway once said, "I love sleep.  My life has a tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know."

There is increasing scientific evidence that a dearth of sleep is endemic in the modern workplace.

I not infrequently hear hard-charging colleagues at business networking events bragging about their ability to survive on very little sleep.  It is like a macho badge of honor quite similar to the brag of busyness, which I have often written about in this column.  [Why Being Busy Isn't Cool]  However, there is an increasingly compelling scientific case to be made for more sleep, not less, being a key to executive productivity.

There is an abundance of scholarly research pointing to sleep deprivation as being a key component of poor health in general.  For example, Vicki Culpin of Ashridge Executive Education recently reported that seven of the top 15 reasons for death in the United States are partially attributable to poor sleep.  These include heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, accidents, and cancer.  Insufficient sleep also results in poorer memory, impaired creativity, limited ability to focus, depression, and anxiety.  And it also seems to increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Culpin points out that productivity is not increased by greater time spent at work.  She notes innumerable documented disasters where sleep deprivation played a role, i.e. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle.

In February the Harvard Business Review reported the surprising research of Rasmun Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter which found that the more senior an executive, the more sleep they get.  Their research included an assessment of 35,000 leaders and in-depth interviews with 250 more.  Hougaard and Carter state, "There are two possible explanations for this.  Either senior executives, with the help of assistants and hard-working middle managers, do less and take more time for sleep.  Or senior executives have had the wisdom and discipline throughout their career to get enough sleep and thereby maintain a high performance level without burning out.  Our conclusion is that the latter is the case."

They go on to quote Cees 't Hart, CEO of Carlsberg Group.  He says simply, "Sleep has always been foundational for my performance, and especially to perform in a way that is required by my current job, I need seven hours of sleep, every night.  Of course, with intense travel and work commitments, sometimes this is compromised, and when that happens, it comes with a cost.  When I sleep less, I perform less."

Hougaard and Carter conclude that sleep is not a luxury, but a key business tool for effective leaders.  They conclude that business owners need to make sleep sacrosanct.  And they believe good sleep habits are highly trainable.  Here are five of their suggestions.

  1. Try melatonin, a natural hormone released by your pineal gland that relaxes you.
  2. Avoid screens.  Turn off TVs, smartphones, and laptops at least 60 minutes before bed.  They produce blue light rays that repress your pineal gland.
  3. Stop intense thinking 60 minutes before bed.
  4. Avoid eating two hours before bed.  It activates the flow of blood and sugar in the body, keeping you alert.
  5. Meditate or chant for five minutes in your bed before lying down to sleep.

Here are some more suggestions from my experience.  I'm sure you can add to it as well.

  1. Go to bed at the same time every night.  Your body habituates it.
  2. Eliminate caffeine after lunch.
  3. Sleep in a cool room.  Cooling yourself is a signal to your body you are ready to sleep.
  4. Exercise daily.
  5. Eliminate noises or add white noise.  You can buy machines for the latter.

Science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin suggests in her book The Left Hand of Darkness, "When action grows unprofitable, gather information, when information grows unprofitable, sleep."  Thank you, Ursula.

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Published on: Jul 30, 2018