Getting a decent night’s sleep is an indication of good sense rather than of weakness.
It’s time we woke up to the importance of sleep in our lives. Many people endure lengthy commutes to and from work each day - and at the same time the working day itself grows inexorably longer as employers demand more and more from their staff. And when they get home, many commuters are faced with cooking an evening meal, putting children to bed, sorting out household chores like laundry or getting the children’s school kit ready for the next day. Before going to bed, many will check their emails or perhaps read a couple of reports in preparation for a meeting the next day.
When searching for a way of cramming even more into 24 hours, cutting back on sleep can seem like the easy option. It comes as no surprise to us when we read that four out of ten adults say that they don’t get enough sleep, but the issue is rarely discussed as a significant social problem.
Yet a good night’s sleep is vital for our health and well-being. Charles Leadbeater, author of the Demos think-tank report Dream On: Sleep in the 24/7 Society, argues that we need to change our attitudes:
'We are taking risks without knowing how to calculate the costs and benefits of our actions. Sleep is vital to brain development in children and remains vital to learning, emotion and memory in adults. A society which sees sleep as enforced downtime, a maintenance period to be minimized, is taking huge risks.'
Denying ourselves the sleep we need can dent our productivity, reduce the quality of our work and erode our creativity and innovation. This can be particularly damaging in an economy where creativity at work is just as important as the hours we put in. Meanwhile, back home, sleep deprivation makes for increased tension and strife, especially where both parents are working and have young children to look after.
'Sleep is one of the missing ingredients in the growing debate about work-life balance,' says Leadbeater, suggesting that HR professionals and public policy-makers need to wake up to the danger of creating a ‘sleepless society’. We need an attitudinal change so that working long hours and borrowing from sleep time is no longer seen as evidence of a busy, successful person.
Britain is already recognised as having a long-hours work culture which affects people’s well-being. 'On any working day, a quarter of all managers in Britain are likely to be in a bad mood because they have not slept well' says Leadbeater. Yet those sleep-deprived and bad-tempered managers are responsible for millions of workers.
We should not be distracted by stories of very successful people, such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, who were said to sleep for only around five hours per night. The were inveterate cat-nappers, so they were making up for a short night sleep by topping up to their full eight hour quota by snatching snoozes during the day. Einstein liked 10 hours per night – 11 if he had some serious thinking to do the next day.
We devote lots of time, energy and money to our work and leisure, but we currently give scant thought to getting enough sleep.
'Sleep is one of those pervasive quality-of-life issues that everyone talks about – except politicians,' says Leadbeater, pointing out that politicians are poor role models, working all hours and believing that to admit the need for more sleep is a sign of weakness.