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Sleep well, sweet dreams – and career success

Those of a certain age may well remember one of those slightly twee advertising campaigns for breakfast cereals asking “How many do you do?”. It referred to the number of healthy Weet-Bix in your breakfast bowl each morning.

The fun, friendly competition was big in professional sports circles and amongst active corporates. The bigger the number, the bigger the person. (Apparently.) But at least it was health oriented.

"Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was tired."
Bill Clinton, Former US President

Fast forward to 2015 however and the humble Weet-Bix has been replaced by a question less fibrous but far more integral to our well-being: the hours of sleep. And when I increasingly hear it at corporate functions it is about how little not how much.

These days, the fewer the hours of sleep, the bigger your bragging rights.

But while eating more breakfast biscuits may ultimately slow you down, aiming for less and less sleep is a dangerous trend.

Leon Lack, a Professor in Psychology at Flinders University, and the Director of the Insomnia Clinic at the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health, says this macho boasting amongst managers and leaders about how few hours they sleep is not only counterproductive for workplace efficiency but endorses the false notion sleep is a luxury that must be sacrificed for success - with potentially life-threatening health effects.

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Caption:The Nightmare I, 1781. Found in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images).

“Your health is going to be impaired if you forcibly reduce the hours you sleep,” Professor Lack says. “There are lots of indicators that the stress reaction system is chronically triggered with insufficient sleep. Your immune system is weakened, your ability to fight infection is impaired, you increase risk of stroke, diabetes and even obesity.”

As for performance and productivity, Lack says sleep-deprived workers struggle to concentrate and make unnecessary mistakes.

In their research paper ‘Why it pays to ensure adequate sleep for your employees’, Christopher Barnes (University of Washington) and Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan) say “sleep is a resource to be strategically leveraged by companies to allow their employees to perform at their best – creating a culture of leadership, creativity, confidence, and good decision making.”

They also state sleep reduces memory decline, workplace injury, cyber-loafing and unethical behaviour. “Many organisational leaders do not fully understand the health and organisational benefits of modelling healthy sleep schedules for their company’s performance… habits like sending messages through the night or staying at work late or arriving far before the workday starts sends a message about the workplace expectations for employees.”

In Australia, companies including Salesforce, Google, Australian Institute of Sport, PWC and BHP have invested in nap pods. 

So, when exactly did it become cool to be sleep deprived anyway? When did lack of sleep become a status symbol, a sign of virility, a trophy in the corporate world?

PepsiCo chair Indra Nooyi, Martha Stewart and Sir Richard Branson all reportedly sleep around four hours a night. Donald Trump and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer claim what research suggests is unrealistic under-4 hour sleep habits too.

Bill Clinton, who used to get five hours, once admitted “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was tired.”

Then there’s the other extreme. Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, is now on the ‘sleep your way to the top’ bandwagon. No, she isn’t referring to morals or unethical workplace behaviour, she’s simply acknowledging sleep is a vital ingredient in success, after she herself collapsed from exhaustion and regained consciousness in a pool of blood.

The media guru has been touting sleep as her “biggest enhancement tool” for years.

She has now increased her sleep from four or five to eight hours every night, and encourages her employees to do the same. The Huffington Post headquarters even have two nap rooms that she says are “perpetually full”.


Professor Lack says short naps could well be the antidote to working ourselves to the point of burnout. After all, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Leonardo da Vinci were proud nappers and look where it got them.

“Our research shows that power naps increase alertness,” Lack says. “A few enlightened CEOs have allowed nap rooms or sleep pods in the workplace and it’s the rational thing to do. Rather than struggling on and making mistakes, take 10 minutes for a nap and bing, you’re ready to work again.”

Lack says getting more out of the workforce may now be the norm but the notion that burnout is essential for success is certainly not backed up by modern science. “There is an appalling lack of adoption of scientifically established best practices regarding issues to do with sleep and circadian rhythms,” he says.

As a case study he cites the probable effects of sleep deprivation on a former, very prominent politician.

“I was sympathetic towards (him), he was smart and articulate,” Lack says. “But in the second year of his term, he was running out of steam.

“He was becoming extremely fatigued, deflated, poll ratings started to drop and evidence of him being nasty …had been popping up for some time.”

Lack says such behaviour is symptomatic of a lack of sleep.

“I was ready to write to him, not that he’d read my letter. My concern was he’d been bragging about getting four hours of sleep every night, which meant he was missing out on the most important, early stage of sleep.”

The Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep stage has a key role to play in emotions and mood. Lack says animal studies with rats and mice showed increases in fighting behaviour, increased eating and increased sex drive. “All the ‘drive’ states are exaggerated by (not enough sleep),” Lack says.

REM sleep-deprived humans become irritable and emotionally variable. “I thought this politician was showing the classic signs of chronic lack of REM sleep,” he added.

In a further blow to modern corporate life, one of the keys to getting more sleep is making the bedroom a device-free zone. No tablets, no smart phones, no UHD TVs. Just like your devices need to recharge during the night, so do the humans who use them.

But we live in an era of cheaper labour cost alternatives and managements obsessed with quantifying output. As a result, we are punishing our bodies with increased stress and decreased sleep. Lack says that attitude is not sustainable.  

“If you want to enjoy your later life for longer and at better quality, being subjected to continuous stress and less sleep time is going to impair that.”

Marcia Levinstock is founder and managing editor of content agency PrimaryIdeas. She is a former concert musician, television panellist and magazine editor. She wishes she slept more.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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