A Wake-Up Call for the Sleep Deprived

Several familiar themes emerged at Virgin Pulses’ 2016 Thrive Summit in Boston this week, including some we heard at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference earlier this spring.

Arianna Huffington’s humorous and engaging keynote Tuesday afternoon on the topic of sleep deprivation was one that personally resonated with me. Maybe it had something do with the fact I was still struggling with jet lag, having just returned from a trip from Japan the weekend before?

Of course, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grasp the detrimental impact sleep deprivation can have on effectiveness and productivity. Studies have repeatedly shown the huge toll it can take on businesses, including one titled “Insomnia and the Performance of U.S. Workers: Results from the American Insomnia Survey” that put lost workplace productivity at around 11 days per employee—or the equivalent of $2,280 per employee. If you’re a business leader, figures like these, you would think, could lead to a few sleepless nights of your own.

Huffington, founder, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, touched on the problem of sleep deprivation in Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. Most likely in the hopes of drawing more attention to this ever-important issue, she also came out with a new book last month dedicated to the subject titled The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. (As an attendee at the Thrive Summit, I received a complimentary copy, which I’m looking forward to giving a more thorough read.)

In her Thrive Summit talk, Huffington shared her own personal awakening, which involved pushing herself so hard nine years earlier that she collapsed and, in the process, broke her cheekbone. She noted that “you’re not successful when you find yourself in a pool of blood.”

After a series of doctor visits and testing, she said it was determined the cause of the fall wasn’t a brain tumor or heart condition, but was due to her not getting enough sleep.

“Sleep deprivation is the new smoking,” she said.

Despite noting that her talk would be apolitical, Huffington, a political commentary who regularly takes aim at the Republican Party, couldn’t refrain from taking a jab at the Republican Party’s “presumptive” nominee, who has, on occasion, boasted about the limited sleep he needs to get. That candidate, she said, seems to display all of the symptoms of a person who is sleep deprived: mood swings, bad judgement, etc.

Huffington said the science shows that people need seven to nine hours of sleep, not the three, four or five many are settling on—and employers and HR leaders need to do more to enable that to happen.

For starters, she said, business leaders need to end the practice of praising and rewarding those who never disconnect from their jobs. “When you congratulate people who work 24/7, it’s like congratulating them for coming to work drunk,” she said.

Huffington specifically praised the efforts of business leaders such as Amazon’s CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who have been ahead of the curve in talking about the value of getting eight hours of sleep a night. Other so-called “sleep evangelists” mentioned in The Sleep Revolution include Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

There are a number of steps people can take to get “rekindle our romance with sleep,” Huffington said. She specifically emphasized the value of creating a ritual before going to bed. For her, that ritual includes disconnecting from all electronic devices roughly 30 minutes ahead of time and taking a hot bath in Epsom salts.

Whether it’s 30 minutes or something less, she said, “we need to wind down and put the day behind us.”

Of course, for those of us who aren’t getting enough sleep, changing our behavior is often easier said than done. So it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the program kicked off the following morning with a workshop titled “Behavior Change is a Skill,” conducted by BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.

The premise of his workshop was that people can learn to change their behaviors—that people can acquire skills for changing just as they can learn how to play a musical instrument or swim.

Or, I suppose for that matter, learn how to get a better night’s sleep.