How the Cult of Sleep-Deprivation Affects Work and Mental Health

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

While a lot of the focus of this show is around mental health and work, we also often spend time talking about the connection between physical and emotional health, because they are so intricately connected. And in the same way that it can be hard or impossible to go to work and do your best when you’re suffering from a physical ailment, a mental one can be even more debilitating. And if you’re a listener, you probably already know that, but we thought it was time to dig a little deeper into the connection between body and mind through the lens of something we do every day – sleep.

When my son, Tom, was a toddler, he would scream, “I’m not tired” at the top of his lungs. And this was our cue that Tom was, in fact, exhausted and about to have a massive tantrum if he didn’t get put to bed, but he resisted sleep as long as he possibly could. Well, it turns out we grownups are not so different from toddlers when it comes to sleep deprivation. Sleep makes you better at your job. And as my guest today will tell you, we’re more charismatic, more effective, more ethical, and just plain nicer to be around when we get enough sleep.

So, why don’t we pay attention to this most fundamental need, instead glorifying sleeplessness? Even with all the studies about how lack of sleep can make us less productive, more likely to make a mistake, more irritable, in theory a trifecta that makes it hard to achieve at work, a huge number of industries still practice in a kind of cult of sleep deprivation. To get to why this myth persists, what it means for work, and how anxiety and depression and lack of sleep contribute to each other and make people spiral, we’re joined today by sleep expert, Christopher Barnes, associate professor at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.

It’s interesting, when I was thinking about what I wanted to ask you, I was thinking, sleep is a topic that I feel like we all should know better. We know we should get more sleep. We know that it’s bad for us to not get sleep. We know how crappy we feel if we don’t get enough sleep. And yet there is a prevalence, there’s a mythology in our work culture that if we only sleep for a few hours, we will win the game. I’m curious if you’ve studied the history of why sleep is seen as something that you should sacrifice to win. Where does that come from?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Well, I think there’s a few different ways to look at this. The most potent from my perspective is that this is a message that a lot of leaders will send both with their words and with their actions. Some of my own research examines, what we call, sleep de-valuing leadership. And this is where leaders send the message to their subordinates through role modeling that sleep should be deprioritized so that you can get more work in. Maybe they send emails at three in the morning, or maybe they pull an all-nighter in the office. Leaders can also do this through the behaviors they reward and punish in the workplace.

So if, say, your leader sends an email at three in the morning, and you respond to it at 3:30 in the morning, that leader might praise you the next day for being so responsive. And so, they were sending a clear message that, yes, that’s the right thing to do, continue sacrificing your sleep so that you can work more, or they might do this more on the negative side. So if you don’t respond to that email that they sent at three in the morning until nine in the morning, they might say, “Oh, that was a pretty slow response time. You know, it seems like you should be a bit more dedicated to this job. And we have really important work to do.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Have you ever looked at the language that leaders use that is most powerful in sort of sending the signal to their employees that they should work all hours and be maximally present? Are there certain triggering words they use?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: I’m not sure that there’s a specific word, but I think the underlying message that they do send is that, “We have a lot to do here, and it’s really important.” And if you want to be an important person in this workplace, you’re going to dig in and put in a lot of hours. And not just the number of hours but also when those hours are. Sometimes, those hours are going to be at two in the morning, three in the morning, when you should otherwise be sleeping. I remember having a student who was talking about a friend of hers, who was an intern for a large financial organization. While he was an intern, his boss said, “I want you to check your email every 15 minutes, just all throughout the night, every 15 minutes, because things move fast here. We need to be responsive. And I don’t want to have to wait hours to get a response from you.” And I remember thinking, okay, that’s a very clear message for how much we should value sleep or how little, I should say, we should value sleep versus the importance we place on work.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, but at least he was clear. I think that so much of it is what I call “sludging.” Like you said, where you might be five minutes late to a meeting, and your boss will say, “Oh, nice of you to join us,” but it’s that, like you said before, if you don’t respond to the email until the next morning, it’s like, “Oh, big night last night?” Or I guess, “Thanks for taking your time.” It’s those really cutting passive aggressive comments that almost feel worse. This is really fascinating. How did you start? You’re a professor at a business school. You study the sort of leadership impact and workplace impact of sleep. What got you into this field?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Prior to my academic career, I was an officer in the United States Air Force. And I guess sort of just by chance, I was assigned to the Air Force Research Laboratory. And part of that time, I was in the fatigue countermeasures branch of the laboratory. I was just a Lieutenant, and my job was to help to manage these research projects. But the focus of the research projects themselves were about the effects of sleep deprivation on members of the Air Force. As you might imagine, there are some pretty extreme contexts into which we place people working in the Air Force. Sometimes, this includes pilots who might fly 60-hour missions.

It’s important for the Air Force to understand what’s going on with people who are sleep-deprived and trying to do very critical jobs that involve a lot of danger. When I sat down to comb through the literature on sleep in the domain of organizational behavior, I found that this was a topic that was not really in that literature. And so I said, this sleep stuff is really important in the workplace. It amazes me that it’s not already something being researched, so I’m going to try to get that going.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think all of us could summon to mind a super successful person in our life or who we’ve read about who seemed to never sleep, who talks about never sleeping, who runs on a few hours a night. I’ll never forget, in my second job out of college, I worked at a startup, and there was a very glamorous co-founder, and she wore purple leather Versace suits, and she was kind of legendary. She would always say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” That was sort of her thing. And so, that made a very deep impression on me as a 22-year-old. Is there a correlation between people who sleep less and get more done and are more successful? Or are these people just spinning a mythology?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: There’s some nuance here, but I think consistent with your example, we can look to our current president, Donald Trump. there are quotes of him saying basically, “I sleep maybe four hours a night. And if I’m only sleeping four hours a night, and you’re sleeping eight hours a night, how can you ever hope to out-compete me?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Bill Clinton also only slept four hours a night, I remember.

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Margaret Thatcher. There are other famous leaders in both political arenas and business domains that will talk about this. I think there’s an inherent assumption here that the number of hours that you work is where the value comes from, but there is also a quantity-quality trade-off. You could perhaps work 20 hours a day, maybe, if you really push it, probably not for too long. But for some period of time, you could probably physically work 20 hours a day. Are those 20 hours going to be your best 20 hours of work? The answer here is very clearly no. If you work fewer hours and get more sleep in, the work that you do in those fewer hours is going to be less rife with mistakes, it will be more creative, and you’ll probably get more done per hour in those fewer hours.

It really depends on how important the quality is of the work that you are doing. Now I do think, it pains me to admit this, there are some contexts in which the quality of the work will not suffer very much from mild to moderate amounts of sleep deprivation. Routine tasks, very well known, you’ve done this a million times, there’s nothing new here, and maybe there are other quality control checks later on in the process. And the task is pretty simple. That’s one that you would say you could do in your sleep. What that really means is when you’re really sleep-deprived, you might not sacrifice much quality in those contexts. Maybe if I’m flipping burgers, I can flip them just as well when I’m tired as when I’m rested, but there are many, many, many, many other contexts, maybe even the overwhelming majority of contexts in which the quality of the work is crucial, and mistakes can cause major problems.

When people suffer lower creativity due to sleep deprivation, that undermines the competitiveness of the product they’re creating in the organization they work for. Some of my own research finds that when people are sleep-deprived, they’re more likely to behave unethically, and that unethical behavior can create major problems for various stakeholders, including maybe the shareholders of the firm at the end of the day, if their organization has a scandal as a result of this. And so, I would say for most contexts, when we’re sacrificing the quality of our work to get in more quantity, we think it’s a good deal at the time because it feels like we’re doing more. This ties into people’s beliefs that, “Yes, I’m a better employee,” or, “I’m a better business owner because I’m putting in more hours,” but we’re overlooking the losses that are incurred, not in just productivity per hour, not just in mistakes and unethical behavior, but the overall ability to be at your best while you’re doing your work. It’s just not going to be there the more you trade away sleep hours to get in more work hours.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to shift specifically to sleep and your mental health, specifically anxiety and depression, because we know lack of sleep can cause you to make more mistakes, to do your work, but pay attention to detail less. Now, we know that you might be less ethical or charismatic, but I want to talk specifically about … it’s kind of a catch-22, right? Because if you are anxious, you may not sleep as well. Anxiety may make you sleep less, but can sleeping less also make you anxious or depressed?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yes. This actually does kind of make me a little bit sad to think about this potential spiral. As you mentioned, the more obvious component here is anxiety leading to insomnia, and anxiety is a very powerful driver of insomnia, both on a nightly basis, as well as over prolonged periods of time. We can see that people will experience more insomnia during especially stressful periods of their lives, but also on especially stressful days, they will suffer more insomnia symptoms that evening. It’s a dynamic relationship. Essentially what’s going on there is, anxiety is physiologically arousing, and when it’s time to sleep, you need to go the other direction, away from arousal. There’s also ruminative processes that maintain that arousal and make it hard to fall asleep. But as you mentioned, sleep deprivation can also lead to anxiety. The simplest way to think of this is we encounter many issues throughout our day, which could potentially be stressful.

But a lot of times we’re able to let that molehill remain a molehill, but when we are sleep-deprived, those molehills are more likely to turn into mountains from our perspective. Part of this is just the emotional component. We know that sleep deprivation influences the amygdala, which is the emotional region of your brain, and the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive function and self-control region of your brain, as well as the way in which those two regions talk to each other. The short version is this, when you are sleep-deprived, you are more emotionally responsive. So, we get bigger emotional responses to the various events that we encounter in our daily lives, especially with negative events. When you encounter that molehill, when you’re sleep-deprived, you have a bigger, negative emotional response, and it’s harder to tamp down that emotional response, and so that turns into stress.

There’s also some research to indicate that it sort of tints the lens with which we see the world so that we are more likely to see threats in our daily lives and perceive those threats as more dangerous to us when we are sleep-deprived. The same event looks different when you’re sleep-deprived, versus when you were well rested, and anxiety can be an outcome of sleep deprivation for this reason. You can see how this can potentially form a loop where you’re anxious. This makes you sleep-deprived and can feed into more anxiety, and this can be a prolonged experience over a long time.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s hard though, because this stuff can almost feel normal. I used to work in politics, and so there were years when I didn’t sleep well, and I was extremely reliant on coffee, cigarettes, Sudafed, anything that would just keep me awake and keep that sense of adrenaline going. What can you do if you realize, or you have that sort of moment where you realize, this has got to stop, this is really impacting me negatively, but you’ve just gotten yourself into a bad cycle of poor sleep?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: I think a lot of people would really benefit if they had their own Arianna Huffington moment. She famously wrote in her book “Thrive” about her experience, where she had been working so hard for so long and sacrificing sleep for so long. She thought she was fine right up until the moment in which she realized that she wasn’t, and what prompted that realization? She passed out while she was at work and fell and hit her face on the way down and broke her cheekbone. This caused her to really take a step back and reevaluate her life and say to herself, how am I living? Is this sustainable? Can I keep this up? It seems like I have evidence from my own event here, a falling that I cannot keep this up. Perhaps something worse would happen if I tried to keep this up.

How do I restructure my life? How do I change my life in a way that will improve the quality of my life, but also perhaps improve a lot of other things like improve my ability to be a good employee or, in her case, a good boss? From my perspective, if we reach that realization, then we can start moving towards saying, “Okay, now I know that if I improve my sleep, I will improve everything else.” Here’s where the research is pretty powerful. It seems like almost no matter what the outcome is, it gets better if you sleep better. The most obvious place where this occurs is with health. That’s probably the largest segment of the literature on sleep is how sleep is related to health. You see it everywhere, sleep and obesity, sleep and heart attacks, sleep and strokes, sleep and cancer. The scariest health outcomes are all worse when we are sleep-deprived than when we are well rested.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But what would you say to the person who’s nodding and is like, “Okay, fine. But my boss doesn’t care. My boss doesn’t care. They want me to do this”?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yeah. Here’s where we get to that quantity-quality trade-off also. I would say that you are your best self at work when you are well rested versus sleep-deprived. You might not get as many hours of work if you get a full night of sleep, but the quality of the work that you will do will be better. In the majority of contexts trading off quality to get more of it done is usually a bad move. And it’s going to hurt you in the long run, and it’s going to hurt your organization in the long run.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What if I’m a first-year associate at a law firm or a consulting firm or an investment bank? And my employer thinks, “Well, I did this for two years. I never slept. And who cares? The work is just rote work anyway, I don’t care if your work is better. I need you here at two in the morning. Who cares?” What’s the argument then? What will move someone?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: This is a conversation I have with my MBA students. I actually devote an entire session of class to the topic of sleep. What I tell them is, look, I understand that you are not going to start as the CEO. You’re going to have to work your way up to that point over a long period of time. That also means that your sphere of influence is going to initially be relatively small, at least on the grand scale of things. There are going to be people above you that they’re going to put pressures on you that are going to be really hard to live up to. And it’s going to be really hard to change the behavior of your boss or your boss’s boss. Rather than focusing on changing your boss’s behavior, focus on changing your behavior, and focus on changing the context of the work group that you lead within the boundaries of what’s possible in that environment.

As you rise up through that organization, and you keep taking promotions, your sphere of influence will grow, and you can be the smarter boss about managing employees and valuing sleep. I’m not so optimistic to think that we can flip a light switch today and get all of the bosses around the world to be reasonable about workloads and sleep and value the quality of the work enough that they’re willing to accept lower quantity so that people can get a good night of sleep. We have to work our way in that direction by training our MBA students so that they can do a better job than the bosses that they’ve had, because their bosses just didn’t know any better.

I would say we’re still in pretty early days in this. We have some great sleep advocates out there like Arianna Huffington, as I mentioned. There’s not a lot of us in business schools yet. I’m actually the first business school professor to make sleep my primary research topic. I’m a bit of an oddball for that reason, but I’m not the last. There are others who are also starting to make sleep a major focus of their research in the context of work and business outcomes, working in business schools, teaching MBA students. We’re slowly, slowly, slowly proliferating out into the educational system so that we can change the way the workforce views the value of sleep. This is my long-term mission that I’m trying to accomplish.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, I’m here for it, but it’s funny, I never believe Arianna Huffington when I hear her give that talk because I’ve known a lot of people who’ve worked for her over the years, and I don’t believe her. Honestly, because, well, there’s two things I want to say. One, I was doing a webinar the other day, and a woman, who’s an elected official, asks, and I don’t know this woman … she said, “I’m so anxious.” She’s managing a COVID situation, I think she’s a mayor. “I can’t sleep. And when I try to sleep, I’m so nervous about being away from my phone in case something bad happens that then I can’t sleep.” Her anxiety about missing something crucial, and in her case, yes, she has an important job with life and death decisions driving her sleep. What do you say to her?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: This is a big challenge. I don’t see a magic bullet to this specific issue, especially if you work in a high consequence environment. And I imagine there are many industries where this might be true. Maybe you work, people in the sleep world talk about this in the context of medicine and emergency room doctors who are on call and being on call. It can be hugely disruptive to your sleep as well.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What is a leader who wants to be pro-sleep supposed to do? Is there a playbook? Are there a few things that they can do immediately to start spreading the word that they endorse sleep?

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yes. And in fact, this is where Brian and some of his colleagues have made a nice way of looking at this. My research looks at what leaders do to show negative messages about the value of sleep and how they devalue sleep, both through role modeling and through what they reward and punish. Brian work looks more on the positive side about how leaders can talk about sleep as a valuable thing and ask their subordinates how well they’re sleeping and find solutions to problems that their subordinates are having with sleep. I think there’s a role for looking at it this way. One issue with Brian’s work is that it was conducted in military contexts. I think that’s great, I’m a former military guy myself, but I think military contexts allow a little bit more invasion into the personal lives of members of the military than we see maybe in other contexts.

Some people might not be as comfortable with their bosses digging into how well they slept in any given evening and trying to help them strategize in how to sleep well. But I think from a larger picture perspective, we can still show that we care about sleep, in part, because we know that you will be the best version of yourself at work when you have a good night of sleep. What I would do as a leader is start by cutting out the bad stuff. I would not talk about how little I sleep as a thing to brag about. I would make sure that when I send out emails, I try not to send those at two or three in the morning. And if I have to send them at two or three in the morning to put a delayed delivery on them, so they don’t arrive until eight or nine in the morning, or whatever is a reasonable time in that context. Essentially, I’d hide the fact that I was up late working so that I don’t send a message that other people should be doing the same.

Then also work on the positive side and explicitly say, “I want you to be at your best, and sleep is one way that you can be at your best. So, I don’t want to see you stay too late at the office tonight. I don’t want to get emails from you at two in the morning or three in the morning. I want you resting so that you can be creative and that you won’t make mistakes. And that you can be the employee that I know that you can be when you’re at your best.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I have to throw a plug in here for Leslie Perlow’s book, “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” which, for me at least, was life-changing. Her point is that often we as managers work on our schedules and then send cues that we don’t even realize are totally upending the lives of our team, whether it’s that we like to email on a Saturday morning, but that means that our team member’s getting it while they’re coaching soccer. Then all of a sudden, they feel anxiety or work late. And so I think, honestly for me, I use Boomerang for Gmail, but getting a scheduling app on your email is the simplest, most powerful hack because nobody wants their boss in their bedroom. Unless it’s truly life-or-death kind of stuff. Anyone can have better email hygiene, I think.

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yeah. And I think that your subordinates are always watching you. It’s like as a parent, your kids are always watching you, even when you don’t want them to be. It’s the same with your subordinates. You are communicating through your behavior how much you value or devalue sleep. Sending those right messages is really important to helping make this happen. There are other things that we can do as leaders to think more systemically about how we schedule work. How do we make that work schedule comply with the circadian rhythm realities that people have biologically – not just the length of shifts, but also the timing of shifts as well?

We can think about what resources we are providing to help people sleep well. Some of my research finds that people suffering from insomnia get better work outcomes when we treat that insomnia. I have a 2017 paper that uses an online cognitive behavioral therapy tool for insomnia. It’s pretty easy to access. It scales really well. It’s relatively cheap, and you get a better employee as an outcome. It’s a win-win, and I think it’s a great solution for the large segment of the working population, which has insomnia issues. We can look at other treatment solutions as well. How do we help people figure out what is wrong with their sleep, and how do we help them find solutions to that?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Say more about circadian rhythms and shifts. I think this is especially relevant as many are working at home and might be reverting to their more personally natural schedules of work since daylight hours seem less relevant.

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yeah. There is a 24-hour cycle of biological activity that happens in our bodies. One of those processes is your sleep-wake rhythm. There are certain periods of time in which you are high in propensity to sleep and other time periods of the day in which your propensity to sleep is very low. This is something we all intuitively realize that we’d typically sleep well at night, and we typically work well during the day. There are some individual differences here. Some people are what we call owls in that they have a natural preference to stay up late and wake up late. Then there are people on the other end of the spectrum who we refer to as larks, and they prefer to go to bed early and wake up early. Now, what I think is interesting here is if we’re smart, we will schedule people’s work to match their circadian process because we know that’s when they will be at their best.

One of my papers finds that larks are actually more unethical late at night than they are early in the day, and it’s the opposite for owls. Not only are we smarter at the right time of day, but we’re also more ethical at the right time of day. We have a great tool for enabling this to happen, and that is flextime. If you give an employee an opportunity to schedule their work to match their own circadian preference, you can get a much better match there. We know from the research literature that flextime has lots of beneficial outcomes with regards to work-family conflict and job satisfaction and other things that are related to employee well-being, and potentially employee effectiveness as well. We should be implementing flextime as broadly as is practically feasible, given various contexts. But there are some barriers that get in the way. Here again, I have a research paper that indicates that people have a bias in the way they view how we use our flextime.

There’s a stereotype out there. There’s a thing that we’re all familiar with, “Early to bed early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise.” In this particular paper, we find that when someone uses their flextime to start their day late, they are seen as lower in conscientiousness and lower in performance than someone who uses their flextime to start the day early. And this is holding constant the amount of work they do, as well as the quality of work that they do. This is because of the stereotypes that people have.

We did find that bosses were more likely to hold and implement this stereotype in their evaluations when the boss was a lark. For owl bosses, they kind of get that circadian rhythms differ, and we should let people work according to their own circadian rhythm. We don’t see the same bias with owls. What this tells me is that fle time can be a very powerful solution for helping match work schedules to circadian rhythms, but if we punish people for doing that, we’re really undermining the value of this tool of flextime. People are just not going to implement it in a way that matches their own circadian process if they are owls with a lark boss. And so, we’re destroying so much value by having a stereotype about different circadian rhythms.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, Chris Barnes, thank you so much. I’ve learned a lot, and I really appreciate it.

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: Yeah, no problem. I’m happy to talk about sleep anytime.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Take care.

CHRISTOPHER BARNES: You too.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating or review and tell your friends. If you have an idea for a show or would like to send me feedback, you can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com. You can send me a tweet @morraam or send me a message on LinkedIn. Special thanks to the team at Harvard Business Review and my incredible producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to our advertisers who keep us on the air. And if you like our music, it’s from Signal Sounds NYC. From HBR Presents, this is The Anxious Achiever, and I’m Morra Aarons-Mele.



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