If the toll that sleep problems take on your health doesn’t worry you, the impact on your company’s bottom line will. Business leaders need to wake up to the perils of insomnia, say experts.
An inability to get to sleep or stay asleep is more than just frustrating if you run your own company or have a demanding executive role. The negatives attached to insomnia are plentiful. For one, sleep plays a key role in cognitive processes, which means that a lack of it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning and problem-solving. But that’s not all.
During the night various sleep cycles play a role in consolidating memories. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learnt and experienced during the day – which isn’t exactly ideal for staying ahead in this blink-and-you-miss-it, fast-moving world.
Lack of sleep can put us at a distinct disadvantage if we hold a position of responsibility and manage a team, says health and confidence expert Rhona Clews. “When we’re wired we tend to get snappy and intolerant and it’s very hard for us to be ‘present’, as we need a certain amount of energy for that.” With mindfulness becoming a buzzword in corporate environments, more and more people are noticing when we’re present – and when we’re not. “It’s more important than ever to demonstrate that you’re present and that you’re listening and being authentic, that you’re with everyone in the room – and that’s really hard to fake,” she adds.
Research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry journal shows that insomnia is linked with as many as 274,000 errors and accidents in the workplace each year in the US, costing $31.1bn (£18.3bn) in total. Accidents and errors have a direct impact on the corporate bottom line.
If you’re a chief executive the impact of insomnia can run even deeper – it can affect everyone you employ. “You’re the pack leader and everyone’s looking to you for approval and validation,” says Clews. “Employees look to you for guidance – you’re the role model, so if you’re slipping up on the basics it’s going to have a detrimental effect on team energy. Your team will think, ‘If the leader’s not committed why should I be?’ And that’s going to affect respect and your team relationships.”
Toll of insomnia
The basic need for sleep is one that many people in business struggle to meet on a regular basis. About 21 million people in Britain suffer from insomnia and the NHS spends almost £50m on sleeping tablets a year. “In the case of highly successful professionals the figures are even higher as the pressures mount up – hard work, problem-solving, long hours, big decisions, travelling, responsibility and a mortgage to pay. It only takes one more added pressure for them to develop a serious sleep problem,” says Dr Petra Hawker, a therapist who specialises in sleep and stress issues. “And long-term lack of sleep can cause irrational anger, depression, irritability and impaired judgement. So for anyone in a position of responsibility and under pressure it’s the route to serious error and possible disaster.”
Most of us will experience transient insomnia at some point, caused by anything from stress to bereavement to the disruptive effects of international travel. But when the worries become focused on sleep itself and you struggle to maintain normal sleep for longer than a month, this is chronic insomnia. This does far more than affect your performance at work – it can put you at risk of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. It is linked to hair loss and kills our sex drive. It makes us depressive, overweight and forgetful and even prematurely ages our skin. There is no upside with insomnia. And yet many stressed-out executives feel obliged to get by on very little sleep. “It’s not uncommon to brag about stress and sleep problems and the fact that we’re working later than everyone else. The reality is it’s damaging to our bodies and brains – at its worst insomnia can cause a total nervous breakdown,” says Hawker. There are, of course, exceptions – Margaret Thatcher being the most famous – but most of us cannot get by on four hours a night.
The nation’s sleep problem is now heading for epidemic levels. New research states that one in five people (19.4 per cent) get only between two and six hours of sleep a night. The main culprit in preventing sleep is an inability to switch off generally, with one in four men laying the blame at the door of work-related stress, although the 3am anxiety wake-up is also an all too common problem among business leaders
Where does work end?
The need to take insomnia seriously is clear, but it’s easier said than done. Work is no longer a matter of nine to five. Recent research shows that around half of us use our phones as an alarm, with 40 per cent of us checking emails in bed before going to sleep and four in 10 smartphone users even checking their phones if disturbed by the ping of a text or email in the night. Even holidays aren’t sacred – 86 per cent of Brits take a work mobile on holiday and 40 per cent go so far as to take their work laptop away. Horrifyingly, 82 per cent of Brits feel obligated to work outside normal office hours, especially high-income frequent travellers who are connected and reachable at all times. As a result, the frontiers between work and personal life have become blurred – which means we never feel fully able to ‘switch off’.
But is it possible to just stop being ‘on’ all the time? Not if it’s become the norm – and it has. In fact, 62 per cent of Brits simply say their role requires a high level of involvement. And let’s face it, if everyone else is doing it, it’s not realistic to just stop.
Clews recommends allowing ourselves to have proper wind-down time before sleep, and that could mean making changes to our routine. “It’s really common to be on the laptop and the phone and reading a blog on an iPad all at the same time, which means we’re getting stimulation from multiple sources. It’s important to have wind-down time that doesn’t involve stimulation.”
She recommends breath work – where you lie in bed observing the breath slowing down – to calm the body and counteract our almost constant state of high alert caused by our need to keep checking our emails and phone. “This state of high alert means we get flooded with adrenaline too often and the adrenals become exhausted, so if we don’t recharge we get depleted on two levels. And because our expectations of ourselves are so great we wonder, ‘Why am I underperforming, what’s happening, why am I exhausted?’ And when exhausted we tend to feel anxious, fearful, worried, and self-doubt kicks in, and we start to succumb to fear, instead of just thinking ‘I’m tired I need to chill out’.”
Adrenal fatigue is what underlies burnout and preventing it is learning when you’re nearing depletion, says Clews, who has worked with business owners to address and resolve burnout, sleep deprivation and insomnia, and their underlying root causes. “Looking after yourself means calming things down and letting yourself recharge before you come close to burnout. When you start to feel rundown and tired, that’s the time to stop and recharge. It’s about finding life balance before burnout occurs,” she says. Calming down activities can include anything from horse riding or having a massage, to reading a book – or just going to bed early.
Coping with stress
Sometimes there’s nothing that can be done about being on call 24/7. If working with companies in different time zones means that late-night Skyping and phone calls are a regular feature of your working day “this is where stress management comes in”, says Hawker. “Look at your work and home life in detail and see what can be changed to bring your general stress levels down so you can cope with late-night stress better. If possible, give yourself a deadline of 9pm to switch everything off – computer, email, mobile, tablet. TV is OK, especially if you’re watching something mind-numbing. Comedy is best though, as laughing releases the feel-good hormone serotonin that counteracts stress.”
Other ways to help enhance sleep and calm your stress levels down are: reading a book on the journey home instead of checking through spreadsheets so you give your brain a break; going out for a walk at lunchtime to oxygenate the blood and give yourself a melatonin boost from the natural daylight; or napping for 10 minutes to recharge.”Or do some yoga stretches lying in gentle postures, like head to knee, or with your legs up the wall – this helps to calm the body,” says Clews. “These little rituals communicate to the unconscious mind that it’s time to relax. Of course, the easiest thing to do is pour a glass of wine, but bear in mind that you’ll need wind-down time from the glass of wine as well.”
If sleep still eludes you it may be necessary to seek professional help to deal with the anxiety that causes the insomnia. Hawker uses a blend of hypnotherapy with stress management, creating a personalised CD that the client plays every night to reduce stress and get off to sleep. “Nobody can afford to ignore poor sleep and accept that’s the way life is – it’s not normal,” she says. “There are no hard-and-fast rules about the amount of sleep we should have. But if you feel tired and are not functioning properly, there can be huge consequences – like a heart attack. There can be consequences you can’t come back from.”
When we’re wired we tend to get snappy and it’s very hard for us to be ‘present’. In corporate environments more and more people are noticing when we’re present and when we’re not. Recharging the batteries: reading a book or going for a lunchtime walk are good ways to prevent insomnia or burning out, say experts. It’s not uncommon to brag about stress and the fact we’re working later than everyone else. The reality is it’s damaging our bodies and brains.
‘My brutal schedule meant I couldn’t switch off’
Personal leadership coach Andro Donovan, left, runs an international leadership retreat company. While the word ‘retreat’ suggests a calm environment, Donovan’s role involves a great deal of international travel, and sleep became a problem.
“Ironically, I run off-site retreats for stressed-out CEOs who want to improve their work/life balance – yet my own sleep patterns became disturbed. I’m forever travelling and my schedule is brutal. Finding myself on night flights with terrible seats, dealing with delays, getting poor sleep – and then having to snap straight into business mode when I arrived – took a terrible toll on my stress and energy levels. Also dealing with people’s emotional stress and baggage meant I was finding it impossible to switch off at night. I’d fall asleep eventually but wake feeling exhausted.”
Donovan’s sleep problems became so overwhelming that she had to address the root cause. She attended a sleep retreat in Italy run by yoga instructor and sleep guru Anandi where guests do yoga, work on their breathing and learn to meditate in order to address their sleep problems. “It was only once at the retreat that I asked myself some relevant questions about my lifestyle. It made me take a different perspective to nurturing myself, and I realised that if I didn’t do so I was going to be completely burnt out and not be able to do the job for very long. I changed my routine, and started to prioritise breathing and meditating. Now when I work with these CEOs on a retreat, before a difficult task I do something I call centring – a breathing technique I learnt on the retreat. I’ve changed my evening ritual, and now have a warm bath, do some yoga, stretching out the back and breathing slowly. It’s helped me to switch off. People go home with a programme so they can continue the practice. Many say they haven’t got time, and I have to help them change their mindset so they make time, and do it like brushing their teeth.”