In Praise of Sleep

Having focused previous editions on the world of business, we are turning the focus for this de-cooded inwards. Recognising readers’ reduced time and available attention (more of which below), we’re also making this edition shorter than previous versions.

We’ve written before about how the combination of shorter days (where we are sitting, at least), end of year deadlines and the additional social and family demands creates a dangerous cocktail of pressure and fatigue at this time of year. It is vital therefore that all leaders manage their energy carefully through the lead-up to the end of the year as well as maintain perspective and good decision-making. Whilst there are many factors which can help in successfully navigating December, we want to focus on one that we feel is the most important, under-appreciated tool at our disposal – sleep.

The cost of insufficient sleep

Recognition of the importance of sleep is growing and numerous research projects are casting a light on the impact of not getting enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States has declared insufficient sleep a ‘public health problem’, with more than one-third of American adults not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. The Rand Corporation published in November 2016 the results of a study that quantified the economic impact of insufficient sleep, estimating it to be between 1%-13% of GDP in developed countries, equating to £50 Billion (or 1.86% of GDP) in the UK alone.

‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’

Most people recognise and accept that getting sufficient sleep is necessary not only to preserve good health in the long term, but also to maintain good cognitive function in the short term. However, many treat sleep as a consequence of how they live, a luxury, something to get to once the activities of the day are done, resulting in many suffering from a chronic lack of sleep.

As Matthew Walker describes in his excellent new book ‘Why We Sleep’, not getting enough can have a significant impact on mental functions and our resistance to disease and infections, even after a single night of reduced sleep. It’s no surprise, therefore, that boardrooms this month are full of sniffles and empty chairs due to illness.

Are you getting enough?

Good sleep gets sacrificed on December’s altar of work demands, project deadlines, budgets and parties. Added to this, our intake of two substances that significantly inhibit sleep – alcohol and caffeine – peak at this time of year. At the same time, exercise (a major contributor to good sleep patterns) takes a back seat. No surprise then, that many reach Christmas exhausted and immediately fall ill over the holiday.

If you’re not convinced, consider this: going without sleep for 17 hours (a moderately long day) has a comparable effect on our bodies as a blood alcohol level of 0.05% – the legal limit for driving in the UK. If driving a car is considered as unsafe at that level, it’s also probably not safe to ‘drive’ a business.

An easy way to test whether you are getting enough sleep is to test the time you wake up without an alarm. If you sleep beyond your regular alarm time, then you’re probably not getting enough.

Our constant connection to our smartphones doesn’t help, especially in the evening. The blue light given off by our phones actively inhibits the body’s natural build-up of melatonin, preventing sleepiness, not to mention the stimulation for the contents of emails or messages (‘A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow’ – Charlotte Brontë).

You snooze, you win

Try treating sleep as the input, rather than a consequence, of your day. Prioritising both length and quality of sleep can have a profound effect on alertness, resilience,problem-solving, openness and creating thinking. So, to make the most of the holiday period, to enjoy the presence of your loved ones and to be the best version of yourself – get some sleep!

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