We’ve all had a co-worker or a friend, often a man, who likes to brag about only getting four or five hours sleep a night and being able to function perfectly. However, he rarely makes the connection between his sleeping pattern and how irritable he might be, or the mistakes he might make…
Sleep, or rather the lack of it, has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because of confirmation bias. Last month, Stylist ran a feature about how “you look tired” was the worse thing you could say to a woman (the article failed to explain why it wasn’t as cruel to men). Before that, BBC News had published a first-person account by Michael Mosley on how sleeping one additional hour every night can change your life. When I told Ashley Milne-Tyte, expert in women in the workplace and founder of The Broad Experience blog and podcast, I was writing this article, she reminded me Harvard was on a mission “to get companies to take sleep seriously and add it to their health and wellness programmes”; part of an initiative branded Re-start America.
At the time, Milne-Tyte was working on a radio segment for Marketplace about how “showing up to work tired is just like showing up to work drunk”. Apparently, US companies lose $63 billion a year due to sleep deprivation. There is no hard data in the UK but in 2008, The Telegraph suggested the issue “costs the economy millions” while a 2010 study by health insurance company Bupa claimed it costs the country £1.6 billion in sick days.
I made the only serious mistake I’ve ever made at work less than 24 hours before a June menswear show, around 3pm on a Friday afternoon, having slept less than six hours in total since the Wednesday morning. I deleted 50 rows from a mission critical Google Doc. This being Google Doc, the mistake was fairly easy to repair, in theory. Except it took me longer than it should have to remember that the revision history function existed, let alone how to use it. And it’s not the only reflex that had gone awry. Doing my little post mortem the week after, I could remember thinking, before I started deleting, that the Excel filtering function had changed. Lack of sleep stopped me from realising I was working on the source Google Doc, rather than on the Excel download I thought I had opened.
People tend to discover the value of sleep after sleep deprivation upsets their lives. At The Shriver Report, Karen Brody explains how, as the under-slept mother of two toddlers, she started suffering from anxiety attacks in a supermarket, which forced her to take pills for three years. Pat Byrne founded Fatigue Science, a Canadian start-up selling fatigue management technologies, following his nephew’s death in an accident due to sleep deprivation. Arianna Huffington hit her head after fainting because of tiredness and sustained a head injury.
This accident turned Huffington into a sleep campaigner. Addressing a TEDWomen audience in 2011, she argued that sleeping to your body, soul and brain’s content had the potential to unlock ideas, make you more productive and more creative. Sleep deprivation has been linked to memory loss, the difficulty to process information and heightened irritation. It has been used in Guantanamo. It is recognised as a method of torture by the UN and international law because “ongoing sleep deprivation is an extraordinarily cruel form of torture which leads to a breakdown of the nervous system and to other serious physical and psychological damage” (International Society for Human Rights definition).
When you read the pros and cons of getting enough sleep, why anyone would willingly choose the opposite becomes a mystery. And I don’t think it’s just because their addled, sleep-deprived brains can’t process the information on the topic. I think it’s because not sleeping much has become linked to virility and power, which might be why it’s ok to tell men, but not women, that they look tired. There is a romanticism attached to the idea of not sleeping enough: working hard with a team throughout the night to solve an issue, staying up all night to talk about life and philosophy on a Left Bank cafe, cramming for finals etc. There is also a self-importance to it: if you are going to sacrifice what many see as a basic human need, surely it means what you are doing is more serious than what everybody else is.
Hollywood, as with many contemporary mores, is partially to blame. One of my big frustrations with The West Wing was that, although it was regularly suggested they pulled long hours, administration members never seemed tired, unless it was a plotline requirement. Even then, it was exaggerated tiredness, the type where you sleep in your office, borrow a co-worker’s shirt the next morning because yours stinks and survive on a cocktail of Red Bull-aspirin-eye drops. Sleep was to The West Wing, as it is to most TV shows, what money was to Sex and the City.
The thought that people in the upper echelons of the business and political world take pride in their lack of sleep scares me. A 2011 study by Duke University suggested 18-hour work schedules for traders was partially responsible for the financial crisis. The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, “evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains”.
I am always worried when I read interviews with leaders bragging about how they only need four hours a night. Margaret Thatcher was famously one of them, as was Winston Churchill. Or were they? In a BBC News article published shortly after Thatcher’s death, Tom de Castella highlights how their reputation for needing little sleep contributed to their political legend: “for the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister”.
Castella quotes studies suggesting that about one percent of the population can function on four hours of sleep like the 99 other percent can on eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of them at the top because having 20 hours a day available means you get a four hours head start.
Yet Castella also acknowledges there is a lot of one-upmanship on the topic, especially in competitive, testosterone-fuelled environments such as finance. If your colleague says he only gets five hours a night, you might feel the need to only get four or be perceived as less able. Whether or not he actually survives on five hours is another matter. Sleep is personal. You can get as much as you want, or as you can, and yet claim whatever you want. I feel about people who volunteer that they need very little sleep to function the way I feel about models and actresses who say they eat loads and never exercise: disbelief but on the off-chance it might be true, a bit of jealousy.
Recently, my mentor challenged me to stop thinking my level of tiredness, which I let rule my life, is actually linked to me getting exactly the seven hours I think I need. His example was that for years, he was convinced that he would be exhausted unless he got eight hours a night, until he read a newspaper article which explained seven could be enough and changed the way he looked at sleep. Just like that, he stopped feeling tired on seven hours a night.
My sleep paradigm doesn’t so much revolve around how much sleep I think I need, rather that I have hard-wired my brain to think that unless I am asleep by 10pm, I will be exhausted the next day, no matter the amount of shut-eye I get. This came from a realisation, while at uni, that my most restful sleep was done by sleeping between 9pm and 1am, having an ‘awake’ period until about 2am and sleeping again until 5am. The awaken period used to freak me out, which in turn meant I couldn’t go back to sleep, until I started researching it and discovered segmented sleep is quite normal and is actually the pattern often followed in pre-industrial societies. It’s the perfect time to catch-up with your neighbour, go check the cattle or read a book.
Whether it’s how we organise sleep, how much time we think we need, or the belief that we don’t need much, our views on sleep need to be challenged so we get real about what we need to be at our very best.