“An increased risk of mental illness, diabetes and heart disease, and decreased fertility are just four of the potential health issues associated with not getting the sleep you need” - Dr George Margrove, head of consultancy at employee engagement experts People Insight
Sleep less, work more. That is the line regularly put out by some of the world’s most successful people, who claim they barely need any shut-eye to get through the day.
The list of non-sleeping high-flyers is lengthy: Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, fashion designer Tom Ford, Pepsi boss Indra Nooyi, and even Donald Trump are all supposed to get by on around four hours a night or less.
Figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison also claimed they barely needed any sleep.
On paper, it makes sense—being awake for longer means more time to work on that next pitch, or the latest big idea. As Trump has said: “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?” So could this be the secret to success? Should businesses be raising their productivity by cutting their staff’s inactivity?
If it sounds like the business model from hell, that’s because it is. It may seem macho and committed to start early and work late, but anyone looking to take a leaf out of these business people’s book could do themselves—and their business—a serious amount of damage, according to sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.
Stanley, who has been involved in sleep research for more than 34 years—at the University of Surrey and with the RAF—refuses to believe the claims that lack of sleep is a passport to success.
“It is just propaganda,” he says, adding that throughout history, people have tried to create the impression that sleep is for the weak.
“It has become virtuous to sleep less rather than sleep more.
“There is no reason other than macho posturing for them to be doing this. And if they are genuinely doing it, then they are affecting their physical, mental and emotional health.”
The dangers of not sleeping enough are very real. Lack of sleep increases emotional instability, irrational thinking, and impairs communication ability and good judgment.
An increased risk of mental illness, diabetes and heart disease, and decreased fertility are just four of the potential health issues associated with not getting the sleep you need.
But just how much sleep do we need?
Sleep psychologist Dr Guy Meadows says the amount of sleep each person requires depends on their genetics, with the vast majority needing around seven to eight hours a night. Some people, however, can naturally get by with just a couple of hours. “There is a very tiny percentage of the population who need as little as four hours,” he says. “We are talking 0.01 per cent of the population. Equally, there are people who need as much as 12, so there is a natural distribution.”
So could these hugely successful business people be genetically blessed with the ability to function properly on less sleep? Perhaps—but it is highly unlikely.
“I am always very dubious when I hear about high-flying people sleeping very little,” says Meadows. “Within the corporate world, sleep is absolutely essential for cognitive and emotional performance.
“It enables focus and concentration, the management of emotions, problem solving, memory recall and creativity—and we know that a single night of poor sleep can reduce all of those severely.”
Fortunately, there has been a growing acceptance of the benefits of sleep within companies in the UK. Meadows has responded to growing interest from companies that want to improve their employees' well-being by launching Sleep to Perform, a programme directed at the corporate sector.
“About five years ago, we noticed that HR departments were sending out surveys to ask employees what the pain points were—and employees were saying sleep was a big one," he says.
“That’s how our evolution came about. Organisations started calling up and asking if we could come in and teach their employees how to improve the quality of their sleep.
“We are at a point now where sleep could be seen as a company’s most valuable asset. If your employees are not sleeping, then the impact on their performance—and, therefore, their bottom line—is huge.”
There is still a long way to go, however. Dr George Margrove, head of consultancy at employee engagement experts People Insight, says sleep remains “one of the least understood of all the well-being issues”. Instead, British businesses have focused more on health aspects such as physical fitness. “There is a huge link between exercise and well-being, which is very well known and very well established—but without sleep it does not matter how much exercise you do," he says. "And if you don’t sleep, then you are not going to have any energy to do any exercise."
Despite the growth in our understanding of the importance of sleep, the stories of business leaders only settling down for a few hours a night has a trickle-down effect.
If the bosses are doing it, then there is pressure on the staff to follow suit. But most people simply would not be able to cope. “This CEO, macho, ‘I don’t need any sleep’ approach is potentially very damaging. It reminds me of the Gordon Gekko approach,” says Margrove, name-checking Michael Douglas's notorious turn in 1980s film Wall Street.
“In some organisations, people don’t feel that they can sleep, so they have to try and compensate with other things. In fact, you are probably better off having an extra hour of sleep than having an hour in the gym. Pound-for-pound, sleep is king.”