Sleep Well//

Sleep Better: How Do I Get Enough Sleep When I Work 12- to 14-Hour Days at My Job?

Thrive’s Sleep Editor-at-Large, Shelly Ibach, answers your biggest sleep questions.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Welcome back to Sleep Better, a new advice column to answer your most pressing questions about sleep — how to get more of it, how to improve the quality of it, and how to beat the most common factors that disrupt it. Each month, Shelly Ibach, Thrive Global’s Sleep Editor-at-Large and President & CEO of Sleep Number, consults with other top sleep experts for the best tips on how to upgrade your sleep, and thus, your overall well-being. Submit your sleep questions for Shelly via Instagram; DM them to @shellyibach

Q: “I am a software engineer at a major Silicon Valley company, and I don’t get enough sleep. We are told to get plenty of rest, but the truth is I need to be working 12- to 14-hour days in order to compete and just get everything done. I’m in my early 30s and love my career, but understand the importance of good sleep, too. It’s a dilemma because I want to be healthy, have a social life, and have enough rest. I am often tired. On the one hand, I think to myself, I am young, I can take better care of myself later when I am more established — but I know this is not good for me. The thing is, my colleagues and I are all dealing with the same thing at work and if I were to sleep eight hours a night (instead of five or six) I wouldn’t get everything done. Help!”—  Alex* (stressed software engineer), Redwood City, California   

A: This is a problem for so many ambitious, hard-working individuals who want to excel in their careers, and who sometimes mistakenly sacrifice sleep because they view it as something that is not completely necessary. While society is beginning to understand the link between sleep and performance, we still have a long way to go before all companies prioritize their employees’ well-being. Research shows that quality sleep and working smarter, not harder, leads to higher performance among people in any profession, including yours, Alex. So, my advice is simple: Make quality sleep a priority. You will perform at a higher level and be a healthier person.  

To weigh in on this important issue, I talked to Eti Ben Simon, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, who pointed out that being sleep-deprived on a consistent basis will have a severe impact on your current and your future health. “In the short term it will affect your resilience to stress as well as your ability to stay focused, your creativity, and your mood,” says Ben Simon, “and in the long term it will affect the health of your heart. Science shows poor sleep increases your risk to develop dementia when you’re older. But you already know that poor sleep is bad for you! You wouldn’t skip your daily shower or meals, and in the same way you should not skimp on sleep,” says Ben Simon. 

I consulted another sleep specialist, Kristen Knutson, Ph.D., associate professor at the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University, who says poor sleep is a problem across the spectrum, in professional fields and for students as well. “There are only 24 hours in a day and many competing interests for everyone. However, establishing healthy behaviors, including good sleep habits when you’re young, is essential for maintaining your health over the years to come,” she says. 

“With respect to your job, assuming you are being evaluated based on the quantity and quality of your work, I encourage you to assess whether it really takes 12 to 14 hours to complete your tasks,” says Knutson. “Sleep deprivation can reduce alertness and performance and you may actually perform better (i.e. get more done!) with more sleep and less time awake.” If you are rested, you will make fewer mistakes, you’ll have greater alertness, and therefore you are going to be more efficient and productive. 

“It may seem impossible to get more done in less time,” Knutson says. “I have had college students argue that they have to read a hundred pages each day and there is no way to get that done faster. But they change their minds when I ask them how many times they have had to go back and reread a page because at the end of it they had no idea what they just read!” As Knutson points out, you may be surprised about the effect more alertness will have on your own work. She has this suggestion: “Allow yourself sufficient sleep for a couple of weeks and see how much good quality work you get done.” 

“We all have periods in which meeting deadlines requires putting in extra time,” comments  Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global’s founder and CEO. “But the key is to give yourself time to recharge, since working and living this way all the time isn’t sustainable. In addition to being deliberate about trying to find even 15 or 30 minutes of additional recharging time each day and giving up our usual distraction of social media and mindless scrolling during this particularly intense period, I’d encourage you to be the ambassador in your team for the fact that you’d all be more productive if you worked in a way that was more in line with the science on how we actually perform at our best.” 

Keep in mind, while committing to a sleep routine is important, it’s not simply how much sleep you get that matters — also crucial is how restful that sleep is. For those nights when you truly can’t control the quantity, the quality of your sleep becomes that much more important. Sleep Number’s 360 smart bed, which incorporates biometric sensors with adjustable firmness, is an effortless way to improve your quality of sleep. Besides comfort, the bed also provides data and insights on how your sleep and wellness — which is a great way to stay motivated to make sleep a priority. And whatever bed you are sleeping on, make sure it is comfortable and supports your body for the best night of sleep.

You’re already one step ahead; you’re thinking about how to get better sleep and know it’s important. Consider taking a leadership role in your company in relation to your commitment to quality rest. On my team, we encourage everyone to get enough rest; in fact, we compete on our “sleep scores” making quality sleep a new (and worthwhile) badge of honor. If you sleep well, you will be at the top of your game and the results will show in your performance. Plus, you’ll have demonstrated that you are a pioneer on an issue that you know your colleagues might struggle with as well. I suspect your boss will value your prioritization of your own health, simply because they will see the positive impact on the quality of your work. You’ll be paving the way for cultural change in your company.

Sleep well, dream big, 

Shelly

*Name changed to protect Alex’s privacy 

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