Author: Georgina Barrick
I'm a great fan of Oprah Winfrey's 'Super Soul Sundays' and listen to her podcasts avidly while on my 40 minute work commute. I particularly loved her interview with Arianna Huffington – who, after building a successful business on the back of 18 hour days, has seen the light and is now the global champion for sleep and rest.
She is so passionate about sleep that she's made it one of her keystone habits and is encouraging others to do the same. Recently, Arianna wrote an open letter to Elon Musk (whose very public melt downs – and 24 hour days – are becoming almost painful to watch), pointing out that he's 'demonstrating a wildly outdated, anti-scientific and horribly inefficient way of using human energy' and that his behaviour is like 'trying to launch us into our clean energy future… with a coal-fired steam engine' because of a lack of sleep.
Despite being a good sleeper from birth, I have experienced disrupted sleep in times of stress and know how debilitating, and self-perpetuating, the lack of consistent, quality sleep can be. Just ask any new mother or MBA student.
Matthew Walker, renowned Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkley (and author of 'Why We Need Sleep') is clear that quality sleep is vital to health, cellular anti-aging, well-being and success. Consistently getting too little sleep decreases productivity, affects memory (sleep 'cleans' the brain by pruning unnecessary memory connections, allowing us to commit new experiences to memory), makes us more accident-prone and can even affect our earning potential.
Too little sleep also severely affects our health. Well-rested people take fewer sick days, are able to control their weight more effectively and have better quality cellular regeneration.
In his book, Walker explains how a lack of sleep leads to increased development of a toxic protein in the brain, called beta amyloid, which has been associated with Alzheimer's. During deep sleep, the brain 'washes' away this protein. If you are not getting enough sleep, beta amyloid builds up, increasing the risk of dementia later in life.
He also describes the physical effects of sleep deprivation (which he classifies as 5-6 hours or less of sleep per night). Men can experience decreased levels of testosterone, showing levels equivalent to men 10 years older, reducing virility and wellness.
Other studies have shown that just one night of sleep deprivation reduces critical anti-cancer fighting cells (called natural killer cells) by 70%. The link between sleep and cancer is so strong that the World Health Organisation has classified any form of night-time shift work (where sleep patterns are disrupted) as a probable carcinogen.
For leaders, sleep also allows us to make better decisions, to remain more intuitive and aligned with our decisions and to react more quickly, with a slower fuse. Exhaustion can affect our EQ, CQ and IQ.
If you're a sleep-deprived leader, your vibrational energy drops – which is palpable to the people around you. Ask anyone who is currently being led by a low-energy leader.
It's not about being 'energetic'. Our 'vibration' is a fancy way of describing our overall state of being. Everything in the universe is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies. Even things that look solid have vibrational energy fields at the quantum level, including you. The higher the frequency of your energy or vibration, the lighter you feel physically, mentally and emotionally – and the more you experience greater personal power, clarity, peace, love and joy.
All of this can be affected by a lack of sleep and exhaustion. As Huffington admits, some of the biggest mistakes she's made in life were when she was exhausted and over-reactive. In this state, she missed opportunities and red flags.
It seems like restorative sleep is the new black (#RSITNB) – and is less about getting 8 - 9 hours of sleep, and more about getting the rest that our bodies need to regenerate and function at an optimal level. During deep sleep, blood pressure and heart rate drops, allowing a 'reboot' of the cardiovascular system. Less than 6 hours of sleep per night increases your risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke by 200%.
Walker's studies have shown that humans can function for approximately 16 hours of wakefulness before we see a significant decline in brain function. After 19 to 20 hours of wakefulness, our mental capacity is so impaired that we function like someone who is legally drunk. To recover, we need at least 8 hours of sleep to return to normal function.
While restorative functions occur during all stages of sleep, deep sleep and REM are the 2 stages during which our bodies and minds undergo the most renewal.
For me, it's about getting sustained quality sleep (+6 hours) over quantity – and about getting 'natural', rather than drug-induced, sleep.
So, how do we go about getting more sleep?
As research suggests, we should all aim to get at least 6 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night.
The first step is to prioritise sleep – or, as Huffington does, make it a keystone habit.
If you're currently sleeping 4 to 5 hours per night, try to increase this to 6 to 7 hours, as a start.
Planning is an important part of getting restorative sleep.
As far as possible, plan to leave your office at a reasonable hour. It can be difficult to do this as last-minute 'emergencies' often keep us chained to our desks. A good first step is to recognise what really constitutes an 'emergency'.
Also, as leaders, it's important that we encourage our staff to prioritise and value rest – and create a culture where it's okay for our staff to leave the office at a reasonable hour, without feeling guilty or like they're slacking off.
Electronic devices are the enemy of sleep.
Because they emit 'blue light', which boosts attention and raises energy levels, device screens stimulate our brains and make us more wakeful.
Huffington suggests that you make a time to 'escort your devices out of your bedroom', making it a completely device-free zone. This removes the temptation to check your mail if you wake up during the night - or, as she says, disconnect from technology to reconnect with yourself.
Keeping a notebook next to your bed where you can jot down things that you might not remember in the morning, frees your mind up to stop thinking and can make you less anxious.
Sleep 'hygiene' is important.
Set a cool room temperature. If you wear pyjamas, wear sleep-friendly clothing. Try not to drink caffeine after 2pm.
Use light stretching, deep breathing or meditation to help your mind and body transition into sleep.
Nap. The benefits of a 'power nap' (20 minutes or less) are well-known. Harpo Studios, The Huffington Post, Google and many other successful companies have nap rooms in the workplace #justsaying. Try to build nap times into the 'low points' in your day.
As leaders, Huffington believes that we need to realise that we're paying people for their judgement and not for their stamina. To focus on what really matters and, to be fully present, we need to celebrate and prioritise rest. If what actuaries are predicting is true and we do start living into our 200's, our future success depends on it.
Georgina Barrick, MD of Cassel&Co and Insource.ICT/ IT Edge, all divisions of ADvTECH Resourcing (Pty) Ltd. Georgina has over 20 years of recruitment and executive search experience.