Sleep your way to success

Thatcher, Edison, Voltaire, Tesla and Franklin were all people with a remarkable ability to survive on ridiculously little sleep at night. It is hard not to feel inadequate when after just one or two nights of little sleep the rest of us mere mortals struggle to cope. Sleep deprivation is not something to aspire to.

Gary Hart, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, led a life described as "1,000 miles per hour." Hart's work ethic stood out as he co-founded a groundworking firm dealing with projects for pubs and hotels. Outside of business, Hart also excelled in field archery, boasting 10 national titles. Friends attested to Hart’s competence as a hardworking and dedicated individual, often rising early to drive long distances for work.

Having slept for only a few hours in the previous 24 hours, it was just after 6am when Gary Hart is believed to have fallen asleep at the wheel of his Land Rover, causing the vehicle and its loaded trailer to career off the M62 motorway, down an embankment onto the southbound side of the the East Coast Main Line at Great Heck, near Selby in North Yorkshire, UK. The InterCity 225 train heading from Newcastle to London King’s Cross hit Hart’s Land Rover. Partially derailed, the train was deflected into the path of an oncoming freight train. The trains collided with an estimated closing speed of 142 mph. Ten people were killed and 82 seriously injured, making this the UK’s worst rail disaster of the 21st century.

Tragic incidents that are so clearly the outcome of sleep deprivation, are, thankfully, rare. But we should not be surprised that sleep deprivation can have effects both big and small in the workplace.

A 2016 report by RAND Europe suggested that sleep deprivation is responsible for the loss of over 200,000 working days a year from the UK workforce, at a cost to the economy of £40 billion per year, or 1.86 per cent of GDP. The cost in the US was estimated to be 2.28 per cent GDP and in Japan a staggering 2.92 per cent GDP.

A lack of sleep increases both absenteeism and presenteeism. It also increases the likelihood of accidents or mishap. Research by Glick and colleagues in 2023 estimated that the cost to employers is about $2k per employee. Being sleep deprived makes you a worse leader. You are likely to have worse relationships with those you work with and you are likely to be less inspiring than if you were properly rested.

There is a strong business case for improving the sleep quality of the workforce. Costa-Font and colleagues in a paper published this year suggested that if you want to earn more money, getting an extra hour of sleep per week leads to roughly a 3.5% increase in earnings per week. It also leads to an increase in worker efficiency.

Leadership education needs to be broader than the typical in-house programme or MBA. We need to be helping our leaders understand that they have a duty of care to themselves and those around them to focus on psychophysiological factors such as sleep. These are as relevant to individual, team and organisation performance as things like strategy and employee engagement.

So here are five top tips to help you improve your performance through better sleep.

  1. Exercise regularly. It’s probably the best thing you can do for your well being.
  2. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Consistency is key.
  3. Stay off the phone at bedtime - you might get work done then, but the evidence suggests it is at the expense of the quality of work the following day.
  4. Stop the caffeine seven hours before bed, and alcohol and nicotine three hours before bed.
  5. Take a nap. It can help speed up cognitive processing, decrease errors and increase stamina.

If the evidence presented here is correct, how did Thatcher, Edison, Voltaire, Tesla and Franklin manage to be so incredibly effective on so little sleep? Well it turns out that for a lucky few with variants of specific genes it is possible to be a high functioning individual on a small amount of sleep. Less than 3% of the population have these genes. If you’re not one of the 3%, you may find you can sleep your way to more success.

Sleep well.

Dr Dominic Irvine & Professor Emeritus Simon Jobson