Sleep: Are You Getting Enough?

By on October 29, 2013

Top execs are now getting up so early they risk meeting themselves going to bed. But what effect does a good snooze – or the lack of it – have on us?

Sleep. Are you getting enough? Like sex and money, for more and more people these days the answer to that question seems to be ‘no’. Who has time for shut-eye in the ‘always on’ 21st century?

Snooze and you might miss something great on Twitter. To paraphrase 1980s rocker Jon Bon Jovi, you can sleep all you like when you’re dead. At work, the message comes down from on high. Alpha-male CEOs (even if they are female) vie to outdo one another in the ‘How early do you get up?’ stakes.

The benchmark answer to that question used to be 6am, with 5.30 reserved for the super-keen, but then outgoing Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts opened a new front in the war against sleep, claiming in a recent interview to be up and doing her emails by 4.30 every morning. Whether you believe such claims or not, the subtext of these gung-ho public pronouncements is perfectly clear – sleep is for slackers. Times are tough, business is global, job security ever more fragile. If you want to get on – or simply be kept on – you, too, have got to be ‘available’ round the clock.

No surprises, then, that anxieties about sleep – how much, how often, am I up to scratch – are now right up there with those traditional sources of all-round angst, our love lives and bank balances, at the top of the list of things that, ahem, keep us awake at night.

‘My clinical experience is that sleep deprivation is definitely on the rise,’ says Dr Michael Sinclair, consultant clinical psychologist at the City Psychology Group in London. ‘In the City especially, there is a lot of fear over job security, leading to overwork, anxiety and worry about sleep.’ So having spent 12 or 14 hours at work, people then come home and lie in bed unable to drop off, fretting about whether they’ll still have a job to be stressed out by in the morning. ‘It can become a vicious cycle,’ he adds.

And even when such obvious pressures are not apparent, sleep remains a low priority. We know we probably ought to get more rest, but there is always a reason not to go to bed, says Sinclair. ‘People resent going to sleep because they feel they are missing out and not getting things done. Sleep has become a nuisance, something that gets in the way of us living our lives.’

That’s a sentiment with which entrepreneur Clare Johnson, founder of digital executive search business the Up Group, might concur. ‘Because of where I am in my life right now, I don’t sleep much at all,’ she says. It’s a habit that dates back to the early days of the firm. ‘When I started the Up Group six years ago, there was just my laptop and me. I was self-funded and had to do everything myself; there was no time for sleep.’

Most of us can’t function properly on too little kip, however. Studies of army officers show that those who have had only three hours’ sleep take 20 minutes longer to come round and get a handle on a fast-moving crisis than those who have had an hour or two more; and a 2011 report from Harvard Medical School found that sleep-deprived workers cost their employers no less than $63m annually in lost productivity.

Part of the reason that we struggle with sleep can be traced to the way our brains work. Put bluntly, our mental circuitry has totally failed to keep up with the pattern and pace of modern life. As far as sleep is concerned, our nervous systems are still stuck in a rose-tinted pastoral idyll where we got up when the sun rose, toiled virtuously all day in the fields and then retired at sunset to sleep the sleep of the just.

Poor decision-making and a decreased capacity for creative thinking are other consequences of a serious lack of sleep. It can also make you impulsive, according to Professor Jim Horne of the sleep research centre at Loughborough University. ‘When you haven’t had enough sleep, there is a tendency for you to latch on to random factors and hope for the best. You lose your ability to grasp the bigger picture,’ he says.

So how much sleep is enough? This turns out to be quite a thorny question. The old rule of thumb is that adults need seven or eight hours a night, but this average figure conceals individual requirements varying from as little as four hours to as much as 11.

So it really is perfectly possible for one person to be knackered after six hours’ kip while another is bright-eyed after only four or five. ‘The eight hours figure is nonsense,’ says Horne. ‘Sleep is very individual and people know how much they need.’ There is also the question of quality over quantity. ‘Five or six hours of good, unbroken sleep is better for you than 10 hours with lots of interruptions,’ he adds.


  • Wind down for at least an hour before bed – read a book or chat to your partner or housemate. Give your body clock a hand by dimming the lights.
  • Turn off your phone and iPad and leave them downstairs – if you wake in the night the temptation to check them should be reduced.
  • Exercise helps, but in the morning not just before bed. For several hours after exertion, your body temperature remains too high for sleep.
  • Caffeine can make you feel less tired, but too much is bad for your cardio-vascular system. Drinking it in the afternoon is a recipe for a bad night.
  • Ditto alcohol. A glass of wine may help you relax, but too much and you will wake after a couple of hours and struggle to sleep again.
  • Napping during the day can help you to recharge quickly in extremis – just don’t go over 20 minutes or you’ll feel worse than you did before.


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