Economists are debating the possibility of a recession. But could it be that we are already in the middle of a sleep recession?
Despite regular reminders of the importance of a good night’s sleep, our collective sleep habits are getting worse. The problem has become so serious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.
World Sleep Day is an annual, global call to action about the importance of healthy sleep. Business leaders would be wise to view sleep as much more than a health issue. Sleep is part of a broader challenge to be holistic in our approach to being our best in our professional and personal lives. The degree to which we meet that challenge affects the productivity of our organizations and our effectiveness as business leaders.
The cost of poor sleep
The World Sleep Society provides a toolkit that summarizes the most recent studies demonstrating just how essential sleep is as a pillar of health and quality of life.
- Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine found that healthy sleep reduces the risk of a long list of health problems—including obesity, hypertension, depression, and Alzheimer’s.
- Insomnia affects anywhere from 30-45% of the adult population and costs the U.S. economy between $92.5 and $107.5 billion.
- Annually there are 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths due to sleep-related accidents.
- 46% of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances miss work or events, or make errors at work, compared to a rate of 15% for healthy sleepers.
Good sleep practices
Good sleep hygiene is a critical element of the comprehensive wellness programs I implement with executives and their employees. Some of the essential principles include:
- Set a regular bedtime and rise time.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and spicy foods 4-6 hours before bedtime.
- Include exercise in your daily routine, but not right before bedtime.
- Refrain from using digital devices as you approach sleep.
- Eliminate distractions, noise and excess light from your sleep area.
- Do not use your bed as a work station; use it for sleep and sex only.
Take a sleep challenge
Many of the busy and ambitious executives I coach wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. They are adamant about not needing more than four or five hours of sleep.
Accumulating sleep debt can be a tough habit and attitude to shake. I ease clients into resetting their mindset about sleep through my 30/60/30 sleep challenge. I recommend that they start by adding 30 or 60 minutes of sleep per night for 30 days while taking note of any changes in energy, mood, and performance. In most cases, they find a significant improvement and are won over.
However, sleep experts stress that duration is only one of three elements of healthy sleep. The other two are continuity (sleep that is seamless without fragmentation) and depth (sleep deep enough to be restorative). According to studies cited by the World Sleep Day toolkit, “sleep quality rather than quantity has a greater impact on quality of life and daytime functioning.”
Once my clients have embraced the challenge of getting more sleep, I work with them to improve the quality of their sleep through practices such as mindfulness and meditation.
You can try this with yourself, family, and with colleagues, or make it a company-wide challenge.
Change the way you work
The same people who wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honor do likewise for long, grueling work hours—as if getting to the office early and leaving late automatically translates into superior results. It does not. Sleep deficiency and a workaholic mindset are two sides of the same coin.
One of the best ways to change the way you sleep is to change the way you work. As the Harvard Business Review finds, sometimes less is more when it comes to productivity. It is not the total number of hours we log that counts, but the energy we bring to the hours we work. We are most effective when we alternate short bursts of intensive focus with periodic breaks.
Interestingly, it is a sleep researcher who initially pointed the way toward this approach. Nathaniel Kleitman first discovered how we go through 90-minute rest-activity cycles while we sleep. What is less known is that he found we exhibit the same pattern in our waking hours as well.
This rhythm mirrors the findings of performance researcher Anders Ericsson, best known for developing the 10,000-hour expert rule Malcolm Gladwell popularized. Ericsson clarifies it is not so much the number of hours, but instead how we spend them. In pursuits as varied as classical music, athletics, and chess, Ericsson found roughly the same pattern—90 minutes of intense practice, followed by a break.
Rest, renew, recharge
Your commitment to better sleep should be part of a larger commitment to incorporate rest and renewal into your daily routine. When we organize our days in a way that ensures the opportunity to focus on critical tasks, but also build frequent breaks, we give our minds and bodies a chance to reset and focus.
We all have different activities that allow us to renew and recharge our batteries. For some, it might be yoga or meditation, for others a brisk walk in the park or reading a novel. Whatever floats your boat, schedule it into your day. Make it as much a priority as an important meeting.
Grinding our way through a long workday without breaks (and often without healthy food or physical activity) translates into a late dinner and a late bedtime, which in turn translates into poor sleep. When we do not give ourselves the chance to reset and renew throughout the day, we come home stressed and frazzled—also a recipe for a restless night’s sleep.
We can put our current sleep recession behind us by refusing to wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. We can make sleep a priority and build routines that feed our vitality rather than depleting it. We can model a more sustainable way of being productive, and in doing so create a culture where success and wellness go hand-in-hand.
Although a good night’s sleep might seem like a modest goal, it can be the cornerstone of a life well-lived.
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Published on Forbes on Mar. 14, 2019.