Sleep your way to the top

2013-11-08 11:00

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Snoozing on the job used to be frowned on but more business leaders are realising the positivite impact the power nap has on productivity.

‘I ’ll sleep when I’m dead’ is the proud mantra of many a member of the rat race. But they should be warned: life without enough sleep could bring death closer than they think.

More and more major players in the business world are realising this. Take Arianna Huffington, the globally respected founder of news website the Huffington Post, a leader who believes sleep is the new black.

In South Africa recently to address the One Young World Summit, an organisation aimed at creating the next generation of global leaders, she shared how she ‘retrained’ herself to sleep.

Since then, she has come to value rest so much she’s installed two nap rooms at the Huff Post’s New York offices to encourage workers to take power snoozes to avoid burnout and stave off exhaustion.

‘I think it’s a great thing to have in the office,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, at work, the most important thing we have is our energy. It’s not how many hours we sit at our desks, but how present we are when we’re there.’

Arianna learnt the hard way how dangerous a lack of sleep can be.

A few years back she’d get only four hours of shut-eye a night – until she received a wake-up call.

‘In 2007, in our offices, I fainted from exhaustion,’ she says. ‘I hit my head on the desk, broke my cheekbone and needed stitches on my right eye. Don’t wait until you get a rude awakening like that.’

It isn’t necessary to work yourself to the bone, she insists – and it isn’t all that noteworthy, either. At funerals, no one eulogises about the deceased as the person who ate lunch at their desk and worked 16-hour days, Arianna says.

They talk about their attributes – whether they were kind and generous, a loving parent, able to recite poetry by heart or read War and Peace for fun.

In life, the best way to be an all-rounder is to feel on top of things. And there’s no way you can if you’re tired all the time.

It’s easy to forego sleep and put it last on the list of things to do. Busy schedules and constant access to the world and work via techology means we’re resting less and less. But the irony is it’s affecting productivity in a big way – and our health is suffering too.

‘Stress and occupational-related sleep disorders’ are listed as an actual sleep disorder category by many sleep clinics.

‘We’re definitely seeing a decline in both quality and quantity of sleep, with most people getting only an average of five to six hours per night. This is especially true for people who work shifts or operate in highly stressful environments,’ says Peet Vermaak, a clinical neurophysiologist at the Pretoria Sleep Lab.

Anton Fourie, chief clinical technologist at the Milpark Sleep Laboratory at Netcare Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg, says reasons include people bringing work home, the inabiltiy to switch off, consuming too much caffeine and overscheduling.

But a new trend is encouraging busy bees to step back from their machines and get some sleep. It seems office naps may no longer be inappropriate or punishable, but actually encouraged.

Taking a snooze at the office was popularised by Google, where employees are treated to sleep pods so they can slumber through slumps before returning to their desks, rejuvenated.

Arianna calls it ‘sleeping your way to the top’ and claims she’s doing better than ever in business, now that she’s sticking to seven to eight hours of sleep.

‘These have been my best years. I’ve never been more creative, more productive, less reactive.’

South African offices have yet to install nap pods on their premises, but more and more chill areas are opening up for workers to get some downtime.

In the meantime, how much should we be snoozing at night? ‘Good-quality, continuous sleep for between seven and eight hours,’ Peet says.

The much-needed REM (rapid eye movement) periods occur most in the early morning hours, typically during the last third of the sleep cycle, so if you’re getting less than the recommended hours, you miss out on this precious time.

‘Ultimately, at work, the most important thing we have is our energy,’ says Arianna Huffington

Losing sleep? Read this …

Sleep is not a dormant activity; it’s an active process that benefits our bodies in many ways. Just one week of sleep deprivation can cause over 700 genetic changes in the body, research by the American National Academy of Sciences has found. A lack of sleep can:

• Impair cognitive processes such as alertness, concentration, problem-solving and memory.

• Increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

• Contribute to depression. One 2007 study found people with insomnia were five times more likely to develop the condition as those who slept soundly.

• Speed up ageing. Tiredness releases the stress hormone cortisol, which can break down collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic.

• Contribute to obesity. There’s a link between exhaustion and the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin - which means your brain won’t realise when you’re full.

• Lower life expectancy. Sleeping five hours or less a night can actually increase your mortality risk from natural causes by about 15 percent.

You can catch up on sleep:

True or false?

True! Months of poor sleep will put you in a kind of sleep debt, but if it’s a case of weeks you can catch up by aiming for an extra hour or two a night. Try this on the weekend, when you can go to bed whenever you’re tired and allow your body to wake you naturally in the morning. At first you might sleep up to 10 hours at a time, but as you catch up, the amount of time will lessen.

Top nap-time tips

• Limit light before bedtime. The specific light from cellphone, tablet and computer screens is believed to hamper the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is produced in dark surroundings.

• Exercise regularly. One recent study, published in the US Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found exercisers sleep about an hour longer and wake up less often.

• Try sleep restriction. If you’re battling to sleep more than a few hours, try going to bed at 1am for a few nights. Slowly start going to bed a half-hour earlier, keeping your wake-up time the same.

SA’s sheep counters

Many of prominent personalities get less than seven to eight hours per night.

The businessman: Abey Mokgwatsane CEO of Ogilvy & Mather – 6 to 8 hours

‘I do try to get closer to eight, though. I stop watching the news just before bed and prefer to read. I’m a very light sleeper so I had to get blinds to limit the light in the room while I sleep, and that has helped.’

The athlete: Ryk Neethling Olympic swimmer – 6 to 7 hours

‘If I get less than six hours for a few nights in a row, I start to feel the effects. I try to exercise every afternoon and I find this is crucial in helping me get a good night’s rest.’

The celebrity: Katlego Danke Generations star – 6 hours 

‘I’m most functional when I get eight hours, so the usual six never feels like enough – I tend to then have a sluggish day and my moods go up and down. I like to wind down by meditating or reading a good book before bed.’

The musician and media star: Proverb Idols SA presenter – 5 hours

‘I’m a terrible sleeper – I can’t get my brain to shut down. I’ve become used to going without much sleep. I haven’t really considered getting help but perhaps I should!’

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