Years have passed since the hardcover version of The Sleep Revolution was published. And as I’ve gone around the world talking about how to Thrive in our lives—to college students, to businesses, to tech workers, to people of all ages and from all walks of life—the response has shown that the sleep revolution has progressed way beyond where it was when I started thinking about the book.
We’re in the middle of a cultural shift, one in which more and more of us are taking steps to reclaim sleep, and in doing so we’re taking back a part of our lives that is fundamental to every aspect of our health, happiness, and well-being.
When I first started my sleep evangelism—after collapsing from sleep deprivation and burnout in 2007—the conversation around sleep was still largely just about convincing people that sleep was important, or even worth talking about.
There’s no doubt that we’re now past the convincing stage. The idea that sleep is a subject worthy of our attention is clearly resonating. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been besieged by people coming up to me and asking for sleep tips (and offering their own), telling me about the changes they’re making in their lives to improve their sleep, or just commiserating about how hard it is to get enough.
Every time I do a television show or record a podcast, the hosts will approach me before the show or during the break to talk about their own sleep problems—or successes—though usually the former.
To help accelerate the culture shift and end the delusion that we need to burn out to succeed, I founded Thrive Global, a corporate and consumer well-being platform dedicated to changing the way we work and live. And after 11 years, I even left The Huffington Post—which I love — to dedicate myself full-time to helping us change the way we work and live—to help us move from merely surviving to thriving.
Since my decision, I’ve been asked a lot why I left The Huffington Post, a very successful business, to found a start-up. Wasn’t it hard, people have wondered, leaving an established business with my name on the front door to start all over again?
It’s always hard to leave something you built and love, but given how big this epidemic of stress and burnout is around the world, and how hungry people are for change, I realised I could no longer just write about this problem—I had to do something about it. It was a call to action I couldn’t ignore.
And sleep, of course, is at the heart of this culture shift. And more and more people realise this. You can see it in virtually every part of our culture—from schools and businesses to pop culture and even the government. One of the things I was most impressed with was how much more passion and awareness young people bring to the issue of sleep than my generation did.
Studies show that millennials are the most stressed demographic—often because students feel as if they have to pick among sleep, academic success, and their social lives, when in fact sleep is actually the ultimate academic performance enhancer, and it’s hard to have much fun when you are running on empty.
And it’s not just college students who are affected by sleep deprivation. The harmful effects of early start times for school are evident on many middle and high school students, including depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance.
One of the more amazing signs of the acceleration of the cultural shift that is taking place is an article that appeared in The Harvard Business Review in February 2016 about how “sleep deficiencies can undermine important forms of leadership behavior.” The authors were both from McKinsey, the management consulting firm—and one of them is, yes, a sleep specialist. Now, if someone, even a year ago, had shown me an article written by McKinsey consultants saying that the way for executives to be better leaders is to sleep more, not less, and that McKinsey would actually have a sleep specialist on staff, I would have assumed the piece was from The Onion.
But the piece was real, and so is the science behind it. As the authors note, sleep has a profound effect on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, home of advanced cognitive processes such as planning, decision-making, and problem solving—all very handy skills for business leaders.
“Sleep (mis)management, at one level, is obviously an individual issue,” the authors write. “But in an increasingly hyperconnected world, in which many companies now expect their employees to be on call and to answer emails 24/7, this is also an important organisational topic that requires specific and urgent attention.”
More and more top business leaders are doing just that. One of the most important parts of this cultural shift is changing our workplace culture—perhaps the biggest single factor in taking back our sleep. If we don’t continue to chip away at our collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success, we’ll never be able to restore sleep to its rightful place in our lives.
The good news is that more and more business leaders are realising that what’s good for their employees’ well-being is also good for business.
Another area in which there has been significant progress is drowsy driving, which is finally beginning to be seen as a public health and safety issue—much in the same way drunk driving has been. As part of a change.org campaign to raise awareness about the dangers, thousands took the pledge not to drive drowsy with many supporters sharing their stories. “Fatigued driving can kill you—and it’s almost happened to me on more occasions than I care to count, as a long-haul trucker,” wrote Jimmy Frost of Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Many other signers also had had close calls. “I am signing because when I was a teenager, I was in a car accident after falling asleep behind the wheel of my vehicle,” wrote Justin Schiefelbein of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. “My vehicle was the only one involved, but now, 16 years later, I still have medical problems from that accident. It is not worth risking your health and safety, and that of others.”
Awareness of the dangers of sleep deprivation extends to air travel, as well. In April 2016, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who famously guided all 155 passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing in the Hudson River, travelled to Washington to lobby for passage of the Safe Skies Act, which would give cargo pilots the same rest requirements as pilots of passenger planes. “Let me be very direct,” he said. “Fatigue is a killer.”
And in New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in April 2016 that the Metropolitan Transit Authority would begin testing employees for sleep apnea. This came in reaction to a deadly 2013 Metro-North derailment, in which the train’s engineer had been living with an undiagnosed case of the sleep disorder.
We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s clear that we’re waking up to the power of sleep. It’s both unique and universal, intensely personal and yet common to us all. It gives us strength, energy, power, and creativity. It makes us happier, less anxious, more productive, and more able to handle the everyday stress of our lives.
But sleep should also be savoured for its mystery, the way it provides a pathway for us to travel across time, to go inward and access a deeper part of ourselves.
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