Updated: Oct 19, 2020
On the tube this week, I was struck by the number of mattress adverts. Mattresses that will make you a new person, mattresses that will change your life. There was even one brand that allows you to #sleeprich. It seems that we are a culture obsessed with sleep, or at least with its accessories.
In striking contrast with this aspiration, of the 13 nations looked at in a survey by Aviva, Britons are the most sleep deprived. The Sleep Council found that 70% of us get seven or less hours per night, and a third get just five to six hours.
The effects of lack of sleep can be severe. A poor night’s kip can hinder our ability to make sound judgements, can make us grumpy and affect our relationships. In the long-term, chronic sleep deprivation can have health consequences like obesity and heart disease, and even a higher mortality rate. In the current bestseller Why We Sleep, scientist Matthew Walker makes the case that adequate sleep is more important than diet or exercise for our wider health.
But the wider more complex social and economic effects are very real too. A recent Rand study looked into the economic consequences of lack of sleep and found that it costs the UK economy $50 billion a year – that’s 1.86% of our GDP. As sleep loss has an impact on our productivity at work, days are lost if we’re not getting enough: 200,000 per year in the UK, and an incredible 1.2 million days per year lost in the US.
And for business leaders in particular, the implications are striking. A McKinsey study highlighted how the behaviours associated with high-quality leadership are affected by lack of sleep, including problem-solving, supporting others, and seeking different perspectives. So it’s hardly surprising that many large organisations are taking lack of sleep among their staff seriously, with ‘sleep hygiene’ often part of training programmes. The problem is, we’re still not getting enough.
There are multiple factors resulting in lack of sleep, including stress, not enough physical activity, consuming sugary drinks or alcohol, mental health issues, and long commutes. What’s striking about these factors is how linked they are to our wider lifestyles. Those of us coping with long commutes to stressful jobs will have the ill-effects of these issues compounded by problems sleeping, which in turn makes it difficult to bring emotional resilience to the situations we face every day, at work and in life.
At Untapped, we might look at this issues holisitically: if someone is struggling to get enough sleep, what are the factors contributing to that? How is it affecting their work and personal lives? What can change?
In our 24-hour world, switching off the smartphone an hour before bed can feel like a big ask, but it’s one of the most helpful parts of any pre-sleep routine. If your job doesn’t allow for this switch-off time, why is that – is it because of the demands of the job, or are you allowing your work to invade your personal life in ways you could change? In reality, of course, answers to these questions are rarely as simple as ‘just switch off your phone’. They are, like anything, dependant upon our personality type, history and relationships.
Our employers have a huge role to play in this, by defining the working culture and expectations put on their staff. As well as including sleep awareness in training and wellbeing programmes, organisations can enforce rules about working hours. For example, Volkswagen in Germany has a rule that staff cannot send work emails later than half an hour after the end of the working day. This helps their staff actually switch off from work in their time away from the office, allowing for genuine downtime and thus reducing stress.
In a recent interview Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert, suggested that Britain has a more 24-hour culture than many other European countries, exacerbating this problem: “If you’re paid 40 hours a week you should work 40 hours a week, but we are always connected – even though last thing you should do before bed is work. The essence of the problem is that Brits see sleep as disposable – as the thing to do after you’ve done everything else.” As our economy becomes ever-more connected and global, there is an onus on leaders in organisations to recognise the implications of time differences and 24-hour connectivity on their employees’ abilities to live balanced lives with adequate sleep and rest.
Some organisations turn a blind eye to their over-worked employees, and the wider effects that this is having on their ability to make sound decisions. For leaders making crucial judgement calls every day, this feels like a false economy. But breaking the cycle of ‘presenteeism’, whether physical in the office or online on email, requires cultural shifts in an organisation. It takes bold individuals, leaders and organisations to achieve this kind of radical change, but the research suggests that if we don’t make these moves, the costs could be higher than we can afford.
Written by Claire Lamont