How many hours sleep do you need?
by Dr Michael Farquhar
“Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool” said Napoleon Bonaparte.
“Great leaders need less sleep” and for a perceived leader to admit to anything else is often interpreted as a sign of weakness. Margaret Thatcher cultivated the impression that she functioned with ruthless efficiency with only four hours of sleep a night… probably true in a crisis, but at other times she got far more sleep. Stories about those perceived as exceptional take on an air of truth, that sleep is a distraction from more important things, something to be cut down as much as possible. People proudly proclaim their apparent lack of need for sleep as a badge of misguided honour.
The truth, as is often the case with the myths great people construct around themselves, is very different.
We spend about a third of our lives asleep; sleep is an essential physiological need. Getting enough good quality sleep most nights of our lives is the equivalent of a daily MOT for our brain and body, constantly tuning up our physical and mental function. Without sleep, our performance starts to falter… but so does our insight, so often we fail to realise how much fatigue is affecting us.
The physical consequences of even mild chronic sleep deprivation are increasingly well-described. It affects our immune system, making us more likely to succumb to infections. It increases our risk of obesity, of type 2 diabetes, of heart disease, of stroke. It is likely that sleep deprivation over a lifetime makes it more likely we will get cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Sleep also keeps your mind sharp. Every night, your brain processes everything you have done, everything you have learnt, everything you have felt, and sorts through it. Connections are made, decisions made about what will be kept – and even more crucially, what will be forgotten. Sleep allows us to declutter our minds, to make intuitive connections between seemingly unrelated information. It drives inspiration and ingenuity.
Most adults in this country are probably missing out on around an hour’s sleep every night; sleep loss is endemic, and normalised. It makes us more impatient, more irritable, less empathic. The ability to regulate how we project our emotions falters. For leaders, crucially, that means they are less likely to be perceived as inspiring – fatigued leaders are much less likely to be described as charismatic.
Sleep loss affects our reaction time, our judgement and it slows the time we take to do things. Cumulatively, routine sleep loss is estimated to cost the UK economy billions of pounds a year in lost revenue. Supporting our workforce to sleep better makes public health sense, it makes economic sense… it makes human sense. Yet most still fail to prioritise sleep in their lives.
It is perhaps then no surprise to learn that in a recent survey of thousands of American business leaders that on average, the more senior the executive, the more sleep they reported getting, not less. While those lower on the executive ladder report burning the midnight oil and getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, their senior colleagues choose instead to prioritise sleep – and report that they function better in the daytime. Their success puts the lie to Napoleon’s comment… for great leadership, the fools are not those who make sure they get the right amount of sleep every night, but instead those who loudly brag about how little sleep they get.
Prioritising sleep can seem difficult. It needs a mental realignment to see sleep as the essential foundation of every aspect of mental and physical health, and success. It needs commitment to simple principles of good sleep routine and habits, and to resist the temptation of the late-night Netflix binge. But investing in sleep is a strategy whose potential dividends are plentiful. For leaders, it is a no-brainer, a way to increase personal and collective productivity, innovation and wellbeing.
How do you succeed as a leader in the 21st Century?
“Sleep your way to the top” says Arianna Huffington… and by that she means make sleep a core priority in your life. Resolve to start tonight.
Some strategies to improve your sleep are available here.
Dr Michael Farquhar is a consultant in children’s sleep medicine at Evelina London and is involved in educating healthcare professionals on the importance of sleep.