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Business Wakes Up to the Exhaustion Economy

A growing number of employers and individuals are paying to ease sleep deficiency

“Exhausted all the time” was how one client described his general disposition to Robert McCabe, a personal trainer in London. This, despite his claims of sleeping well. “His performance in and out of the [fitness] club was suffering,” says Mr McCabe.

After tracking his sleep, the client discovered he was getting fewer than his stated seven hours a night and so he booked a 12-week sleep coaching programme at Equinox, his high-end gym, at a cost of £750.

Through this programme, Mr McCabe helped the client increase his sleep by two hours a night. The effect? As well as feeling rested, he raised the weights in his Turkish Get Up (a kettlebell exercise) from 16kg to 30kg over 12 weeks.

Such premium sleep coaching programmes are just one strand of the booming exhaustion economy. According to a report by McKinsey (2017), the US sleep-health industry is “estimated to be worth $30bn-$40bn and is growing, with few signs of slowing down”.

Nap pillows and pods, calming sprays, coaches and prescription drugs are some of the items and services that promise to banish exhaustion. Then there is the tech (including apps and wearables). Apple named “self-care” — focusing on mental health and sleep — as its app trend of 2018.

Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of The Sleep School, observes corporate interest in workplace sleep programmes has “increased dramatically” and now outstrips the “chronic insomnia side of the business”.

A few years ago, Dr Meadows says he would talk to senior executives about sleep who would react with “a bit of a chuckle”. The reaction is more positive today, he says. “We’ve seen a cultural shift [in] the workplace.” In part, this is because of sports coaches championing sleep as part of athletes’ programmes.

While many high-profile business leaders favour early starts — Apple’s Tim Cook is reported to wake up at 3.45am — there is a counter sleep movement. Cees ‘t Hart, president and CEO of Carlsberg Group, told Harvard Business Review “to perform in a way that is required by my current job, I need seven hours of sleep, every night”.

Businesses are aware of the impact of exhaustion on their workers. McKinseyfound 70 per cent of the leaders surveyed thought that sleep management should be taught in organisations, alongside time management and communication skills. In Japan, one company offered staff a sleep bonus.

This is because there is a growing awareness of and research into the impact of exhaustion on productivity. Matthew Walker, neuroscience professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in his book Why We Sleep that fatigue (attributed to work practices, commutes and mobile devices) is “having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children”.

According to a 2016 report by the Rand Corporation, “sleep deprivation is associated with a higher mortality risk and productivity losses at work”. It found that people with fewer than six hours sleep have a 13 per cent higher mortality risk than those sleeping seven hours or more. Exhaustion has an economic impact, too. It estimated the US lost 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (then, about $411bn), Japan 2.9 per cent, and the UK 1.9 per cent.

For those who find themselves sleep deficient, there is help from a growing napping economy.

Mauricio Villamizar is co-founder of Pop & Rest, a warehouse on the edge of the City of London, which has four tiny bedrooms for nearby office workers and partygoers to book at £8 for 30 minutes or £15 for an hour. “They come here, recharge and feel a bit better,” he says. “People want a peaceful and safe space.” One regular client is Thiago Maija, who runs an animation studio. He naps at least once a week because his young daughter wakes several times in the night. “If it’s really bad, [I will] go at lunchtime for an hour,” Mr Maija says.

Philippe Paré, design principal at Gensler, a design and architecture firm, sees increased demand from corporate clients for quiet rooms. “Historically there’s always been a ‘snooze and lose’ attitude. Clients are more interested in sleep and [increasing] performance with short naps.”

Christopher Lindholst is chief executive and founder of MetroNaps, which makes nap pods that are installed at companies and universities. He says that his company’s revenues grew by 38 per cent in 2018 compared with 2017.

White-collar workplaces, such as Google, have been among the most enthusiastic pod consumers. “They are competing for talent,” he says. There has been no enthusiasm from manufacturers employing shift-workers, whose needs are arguably greater. “Lower paid employees are the least taken care of,” he laments.

Are such perks nap-washing stressful work cultures that demand long hours? “We don’t see that companies are asking people to work later but are trying to make people more effective” insists Mr Lindholst.

The stigma around sleeping on the job has hardly disappeared, however. Mr Lindholst admits that industries such as banks and law firms are hard to crack. And even if a company buys a nap pod, there is no certainty it will be used. One human resources executive at a UK company which bought a couple of pods admits they are under-used. “It feels naughty . . . people resist stepping away,” they say.

While the exhaustion economy might be new, psychoanalyst Darian Leader, author of the forthcoming book, Why Can’t We Sleep? observes that sleep panics have echoes in the past. “In the late 19th and early 20th century . . . it was blamed then — and often is now — on new technology. Today, the digital world we inhabit. Then, the amazing fast-paced world of telegraphy and railroads.” One marked difference is today’s emphasis on eight hours sleep, he says.

Sleep hygienists’ championing of rest is, however, creating some new issues: “The new sleep morality makes many people wake up to a sense of failure,” he says. “Rather than recognising the effects of socio-economic pressures, long commutes and the demand to maintain a positive image, the sleep industrial complex ascribes our problems to lack of a nourishing sleep.”

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