Sleeping On The Job

The idea that sleeping less and being plugged in 24/7 is the way to succeed is finally losing credence. ANTONIA HART discovers that more, and better sleep, improves your performance at work.

Woman leaning head on desk with futuristic devices, high angle view

Sleep-hacking – learning to get the best possible sleep in the shortest possible time –is the latest tool in the kit of the competitive non-sleeper. You know the one: bed after midnight, but up at five, and boasting about it, as if scraping by on a few hours a night were a badge of honour, proof of being the hardest and most indispensible worker in the company. As if not needing sleep were a kind of superpower gifted only to the hardcore. But lack of sleep ruins concentration, creativity, memory, problem-solving. It makes you intolerant, irritable, stressed, hostile, and more likely to act unethically. That’s a pretty unsettling thought considering you might in a sleep-deprived state be sitting on an interview panel, taking your place at the board table or reviewing a human resources problem on top of the day’s countless minor decisions.

Sleep machismo generates some legendary stats. Like Thatcher, Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi says she only needs four hours’ sleep a night. Marissa Mayer, apparently, put in 130-hour weeks and frequent all-nighters at Google before landing her plum job at Yahoo!, while at Apple, employees start getting emails from CEO Tim Cook at 4.30am.

Sheryl Sandberg carved out enough time from being COO at Facebook (and getting home every evening for a family dinner) to write Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. She didn’t get less sleep as a result, she got more: the Lean In approach, she says, is not about staying up all night and doing everything everyone asks of you, but about making better choices and better decisions. “I try to get between seven and eight hours, a lot more than I got years ago: four to five hours.” It was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who made Sandberg think about the necessity for proper sleep. “For many years I thought the way I would get everything done was to get less sleep. And Arianna, every time I would see her, the first thing she would say was ‘How much sleep are you getting? You need to sleep more’.”

Huffington has taken a refreshing approach to the prevailing culture of sleep machismo. A workaholic herself, she ended up fainting from exhaustion, hitting her desk on the way down, breaking her cheekbone and necessitating stitches under her eyebrow. Since then she’s become an evangelist for sleep, and loses no opportunity to shoot down anyone peddling the notion that the less sleep you get the harder you’re working.


Develop Good Sleep Hygiene

Sometimes you just have to reset. And it is possible: you can, like Huffington, Sandberg and Burns, create what Allison Keating, psychologist with Bwell, calls good sleep hygiene – good sleep patterns and routines. “If you take a rigorous, timetabled approach, you can reset your circadian rhythms. Go to bed at the same time every night, get up at the same time, having allowed about eight hours’ sleep time. Don’t be tempted to have a lie-in at the weekend. After a couple of weeks of keeping to your timetable you’ll find your natural biological rhythms have been reset. You’ll actually feel refreshed when you get up in the mornings.”


No news is good news

We guzzle newsfeeds all day long, so the ten o’clock television news is no longer a night-time necessity, yet somehow it’s a hard habit to break. Just do it, says Allison Keating. “You certainly shouldn’t be watching anything very violent last thing in the evening. I would never advise watching the news after about 9pm. Television puts your body into a passive state and makes your mind active, so if you are winding down before bed, you’ll find you think you’re tired, and want to go to bed, but may find yourself wakeful when you get there.”


The cool of the night

A raised body temperature inhibits sleep. It’s one reason why women may feel less rested during their periods, when their core temperature is higher. It’s raised by exercise, too, so there’s none of that after about 9.30am Bedrooms are often too hot – keep them cool, open-windowed and dark to facilitate all that lovely melatonin. Keep your bed for its primary purpose – or purposes. It should look, feel and smell enticing. Get an alarm clock to replace the smartphone you’ve switched off and left charging in another room. Get a new pillow, says Arianna Huffington, get a new pillowcase. Have your bedroom as empty as possible: a dark, cool, restful retreat.



“Forget the balance,” as Facebook executive Emily White said, “this is the merge.” And really, who’d want to go back to the 9 to 5 culture? But while you’re using your personal Facebook account to promote a product, campaign, or service, connecting with friends through LinkedIn, organising a night out via your office email and talking on a conference call in your car before the school concert, the merge’s blurred lines means nothing’s all work, nothing’s all play. Jobs are portable, and it’s easier than ever to be lured to stay at work. At Facebook’s Dublin office: “We keep you full with free meals, plus kitchens stocked with unlimited snacks”, while at Google “Googlers can take a break in massage rooms, our music room or by playing classic arcade games”. So you don’t even have to leave the office to eat, or to relax. Have we become afraid to disengage for a few hours, or be seen to do so? And can we remain productive?

“When work merges with home life, or when you stay too long at the office, you’re slicing your recovery time, and probably not working that well anyway. The presenteeism culture gets worse during tough economic times,” says Ursula Devaney. “We tell ourselves we must be busy, we must appear indispensible, prove that we’re on top of things. We convince ourselves we don’t need sleep. But it’s foolish to lose our sense of the wellbeing of the worker, and of the person.”


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