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We live in a world where we often hear that hard work beats talent and that someone burning the midnight oil is truly dedicated. However, can a person’s dedication be an implicit loss instead of an economic gain for the organisation? Sleep is traditionally considered something you forego if you want extraordinary results. The oft-quoted story of exam toppers studying all night long and forgetting rest and play is evidence of this social understanding. However, now, slowly it is being thought of as part of the process of growth itself. There is a need to explore the psychology behind the negative impression of sleep in economic terms, where snoozing equals losing. Although the saying goes, “even God rested on the seventh day1, former Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer operates on four hours2 a night, Apple CEO Tim Cook is at the gym by 5 am3 and a powerful political leader closer home claims to work 20 hours a day, going so far as to opposing medical caution4.

Symbolic of the corporate lifestyle which demands dynamic interventions and continuous ideation, the number of hours of sleep that an average individual gets has reduced to around 6.5 from the earlier 85. Unsurprisingly, this pattern has been accompanied by a rise in caffeine consumption6, an item that is emblematic of the sleep-less culture.

An underlying principle revolves around whether there is an inherent value to our minds as opposed to artificial intelligence. Humans created machines to do things that humans can’t, like work without sleep. Sure, machines need rest too but that rest is something we view as a limitation that we want to overcome. Yet, the fact that machines are developed by humans themselves hints that the value of the creative mind that humans have is higher than the mere ability to perform tasks. Subsequently, the greater the input needed by people in terms of rest is justified by the higher value attached to our mind’s output.

During the Flipkart Big Billion Days, around 10000 employees were required to put in 12 hour days for the 5 days of the sale.7 Mattresses were arranged in the office itself, to catch some rest during the seemingly unending work. This is similar to Google which offers sleep pods to its employees if they need a nap8. Why do we have this trend of corporates recognising the value of rest? There seems to be a growing realisation that the current idea of sleep is perhaps myopic.

The basic metric of work is productivity. Lack of adequate sleep often leads to daytime sleepiness and a fall of 3.4%9 of the productivity so coveted by employers. Assuming 9% as a base rate of absenteeism, employees with higher absenteeism shoots up from 23% to 54% between a normal and a high overtime scenario.10 Going by a study published by the Royal Economic Society (Pencavel, “The Productivity of Working Hours”, 2014, p. 2063) productivity falls after 55 hours a week, so much so that someone working 70 hours produces almost nothing more with the extra 15 put in.

Sleep builds the patience and capacity to tolerate high-stress situations. As a corollary, lack of sleep reduces the same, leading to a feeling of ‘burnout’. A study by Gallup showed that 67% of employees feel burnout at least sometimes, with 23% of them reporting it often.11 There is a 60% jump in the risk of cardiovascular diseases caused by working more than 10 hours a day.12 Sleeping less than 6 hours compared to 7-9 hours increases mortality risk by 13%.13 Reflective of these statistics, Harvard Business Review estimates healthcare spending between $125-190 billion as a result of burnout14. This is corroborated by a rise in a combination of employee welfare measures and personal initiatives, be it luxury corporate retreats or massage parlours and smash rooms.

Another issue is ‘social jet-lag’ which is the significant difference in the hours of sleep between work and non-work days. The biologically ticking clock doesn’t wait for the sleep time directed by social factors. Every hour of misalignment has a jet-lag effect comparable to crossing over one time zone15. Like the normal jet-lag, even this leads to disorientation and lack of concentration ending with the undesired consequence of productivity losses.

A study suggests that there is a loss of 2% of GDP to many developed nations and it estimates that US companies lose $63 billion from such lost productivity (Sivertsen, Lallukka, & Salo, “The Economic Burden of Insomnia at the Workplace. An Opportunity and Time for Intervention?”, 2011, pp. 1151-1152). Deloitte Access Economics puts it at $66.3 billion annually for Australia16. Such tangible, serious figures leave no doubt about the harms of lost sleep. In light of this, it becomes crucial to evaluate our choices.

One is the concept of the four-day workweek, espousing that fewer hours spent working is the real future of work. France implemented a 35-hour workweek around 20 years ago and the Netherlands has 29 hours of work per week on average.17 Even Microsoft experimented with a four-day workweek in its Japan office in Summer 2019 and saw a 40% boost in productivity.18 Many labour unions are proposing a workweek of 32 hours with no change in employee pay.19 In the 1993 book ‘Overworked American’, author Juliet Schor points out that people, despite working more hours than before World War II, were not reaping proportionate benefits. Compared to 55 hours of work per week, those doing 40 hours perform better on mental tasks, as published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.20 Although there are concerns about enough staffing and reduced competitiveness by this transition, Perpetual Garden, a New Zealand based company saw no change in its net output despite the same pay for fewer hours of work. 21

Even back in the 1990s, the role played by sleep for astronauts was identified by NASA and they experimented with small daytime naps which led to major boosts in performance22. This ‘NASA nap’ is a usual practice, today, among pilots flying on long international routes. In another example, the Nike headquarters in Oregon go against the traditional assumption of those reaching office early being better workers. Employees are given the flexibility to choose work hours according to their chronotype, ie. morning person or a night owl23. In London based agency Reboot,24 automated responses are sent to clients for mails after work hours informing them that it won’t be dealt with unless it is re-sent and marked urgent. Just this opportunity to think about the worker’s health often leads to clients deciding to wait for the next morning.

Suppose there exists a safe, tested pill which, upon consumption, gets the user’s body rest worth 7 hours in just 1 hour of sleep. Sure, this saves you 6 hours which you can now work in – but it means you view productivity as the sole end goal of a being. You would be altering natural human cycles in exchange for capitalistic outcomes like optimisation and profit maximization. This is reflective of the crossroad we stand at, in our tussle with sleep. We face a choice between societal approval of our actions and a true, scientific approach towards better outcomes. Even though we are surrounded by success stories promulgating the former, we have data to back the latter. Bringing benefits without major harms, this pill still changes a significant aspect of human life. Would you take the leap of faith?

 

 

By Parth Chowdhary

1st year undergraduate student, Shri Ram College of Commerce

 

 

REFERENCES

  1. “Seventh Day.” Genesis 2:2 And by the Seventh Day God Had Finished the Work He Had Been Doing; so on That Day He Rested from All His Work., https://biblehub.com/genesis/2-2.htm.
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  3. Tate, R. (2011, August 24). Tim Cook: Apple’s New CEO and the Most Powerful Gay Man in America. Retrieved November 12, 2019, from https://gawker.com/5834158/tim-cook-apples-new-ceo-and-the-most-powerful-gay-man-in-america.
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