During the last few decades the average American has lost and hour and a half of sleep per night. Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.
Gail DeBoer knows something about that. She is the president of a large federal credit union in Omaha. Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there.
“I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,” says DeBoer. “I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.”
After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night. Russell Sanna is executive director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. He hears that all the time. “There’s a cultural norm that says sleep is for losers in the United States,” says Sanna.
Harvard is on a mission to change that. It wants companies to take sleep as seriously as they do obesity or smoking. Sanna says sleep deprivation has been shown in clinical settings to have “the equal cognitive impairment as alcohol consumption. Nobody’s particularly interested in having their employees show up intoxicated,” he says. “But unless they’re paying attention to sleep deprivation that’s what’s in fact happening.”
Some businesses are already tackling the issue. Casey Smith is head athletic trainer for NBA team the Dallas Mavericks. The players have just started wearing wristwatches that measure the duration and intensity of their sleep. “It’s a sport but it’s also a business,” says Smith. “Our business is to win games, to win matches, and anything that can make our athletes perform at a higher level, react quicker, recover better, that’s something that we would obviously be interested in.”
In Omaha, Gail DeBoer finally realized she wasn’t performing at her best. Her headaches were getting worse. And she was mortified to discover some of her staff were exhausted too. “Even if I didn’t say it, I think the impression was if I was working they should be working so we had to evaluate — I had to evaluate — the message I was sending,” says DeBoer.
She ended up getting rid of smartphones for everyone except her senior team. She also trained herself not to check email before bed. She’s sleeping 8 hours a night — and she hasn’t had a headache for months.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast on women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.
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