Business of Well-being

Being Arianna Huffington

In preparation of her keynote address at the upcoming Employer Healthcare & Benefits Congress, Corporate Wellness Magazine spoke to Arianna Huffington to learn more about the importance of sleep. Here is what she had to say.

CWM: Why do you believe the importance of sleep has greater traction now?

Arianna Huffington:

The greater traction is due to the fact that we're truly living in a golden age of sleep science-revealing all the ways in which sleep and dreams play a vital role in our decision making, emotional intelligence, cognitive function, and creativity. Every week, new research reveals how vital sleep is to our health, happiness, job performance, and relationships.

CWM: Where do you see the sleep revolution in the next decade?

Arianna Huffington:

We're going to see an acceleration of the cultural shift around attitudes toward sleep. And central to that shift is our definition of success. For far too long, we've been operating under a collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for accomplishment and success. Recent scientific findings make it clear that this couldn't be less true.

Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal. So the next decade will not only bring an incredible amount of new science, knowledge and awareness about sleep's importance, it will inspire and empower people around the world to use all this new information to reclaim sleep and its benefits.

CWM: How do you know you have gotten enough sleep? How about too much?

Arianna Huffington:

Most mornings, when I've had enough sleep, I wake without an alarm clock. Just think about the definition of the word "alarm": "a sudden fear or distressing suspense caused by an awareness of danger; apprehension; fright," or "any sound, outcry, or information intended to warn of approaching danger."

So an alarm, in most situations, is a signal that something is not right. Yet most of us rely on some kind of alarm clock- a knee-jerk call to arms- to start the day, ensuring that we emerge from sleep in full fight-or-flight mode, flooded with stress hormones and adrenaline as our body readies itself for danger.

Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Where you are on that spectrum is individual, but as for too much sleep - no, that's not a problem!

If you were to pinpoint one person in history who most embodied our sleep delusion, it would be Thomas Edison, who was convinced that sleep was unnecessary, and said "Nothing in this world is more dangerous to the efficiency of humanity than too much sleep."

The one exception is the less than 1 percent of the population that qualifies as "short sleepers"- those rare few able to get by on little sleep without experiencing negative consequences.

Though many people would like to believe they can train themselves to gain admission to the short-sleeping 1 percent, the trait is actually the result of a genetic mutation. You either have it or you don't, so it's not something you can develop over time or something you magically acquire because of your dedication to your job.

CWM: When considering how to adopt a quality sleep regime, how do you approach rebalancing time and priorities?

Arianna Huffington:

It starts with acknowledging that in our busy, hyper-connected lives, we're in many ways conditioned to not treat sleep as a priority. The method (or cheat code) we use isn't a mystery: feeling that there aren't enough hours in the day, we look for something to cut. And sleep is an easy target. In fact, up against this unforgiving definition of success, sleep doesn't stand a chance.

So an important part of the approach is remembering what you're told on airplanes - to "secure your own mask first before helping others," even your own child. One of the fundamental truths of well-being is that the better we are at taking care of ourselves, the more effective we'll be in taking care of others, including our families, our coworkers, our communities, and our fellow citizens.

CWM: What are the challenges for people to adopt better sleep habits?

Arianna Huffington:

There are many. To start, for far too many people in the world, the vicious cycle of financial deprivation also feeds into the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. If you're working two or three jobs and struggling to make ends meet, "get more sleep" is probably not going to be near the top of your priorities list.

As in the case of health care, access to sleep is not evenly- or fairly-distributed. Sleep is another casualty of inequality. A 2013 study from the University of Chicago found that "lower socioeconomic position was associated with poorer subjective sleep quality, increased sleepiness and/or increased sleep complaints."

At the core, though, is our cultural attitude toward sleep. The glamorization of sleep deprivation is deeply embedded in our culture. Everywhere you turn, sleep deprivation is celebrated, from "You snooze, you lose" to highly burned out people boasting, "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

The combination of a deeply misguided definition of what it means to be successful in today's world-that it can come only through burnout and stress-along with the distractions and temptations of a 24/7 wired world, has imperiled our sleep as never before.

CWM: What can employers do right now to help their employees get a better night of sleep? Any advice for employers starting programs emphasizing the importance of sleep?

Arianna Huffington:

Right now, we are in the middle of an incredible transition where multiple behaviors are coexisting from executives congratulating employees for working 24/7 to CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella speaking publicly about needing 8 hours of sleep to be most effective. Then there's Aetna, led by CEO Mark Bertolini, where for every 20 days an employee sleeps at least seven hours, he or she can earn $25 - up to $300 total.

Another sign of the tipping point is an article in the Harvard Business Review titled "There's a Proven Link Between Effective Leadership and Getting Enough Sleep," written by McKinsey's sleep specialist.

Now, if somebody had told you even a year ago that McKinsey consultants would be writing a piece for the Harvard Business Review saying that the way for executives to be better leaders is to sleep more, and not less, and that McKinsey would have a Sleep Specialist on staff, you would think this was written by The Onion.

At HuffPost, there was skepticism when we first installed nap rooms in New York in 2011. HuffPosters were reluctant to be seen walking into a nap room in the middle of a bustling newsroom in "the city that never sleeps." But now they are perpetually full, and we're spreading nap rooms around the world, starting with our London office.

And more and more companies are installing nap rooms, including Ben & Jerry's, Zappos, and Nike. The business world is waking up to the high cost of sleep deprivation on productivity, creativity, health care, and ultimately the bottom line.

And we have a growing number of business leaders realizing that well-rested employees are better employees. I expect the nap room to soon become as universal as the conference room.

CWM: What can individuals do to get a better night's sleep right tonight?

Arianna Huffington:

It's so important to create a mindful bedtime routine to ease your transition into sleep. I treat my own transition as a sacrosanct ritual. First, I turn off all my electronic devices and gently escort them out of my bedroom. Then, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby-a bath that I prolong if I'm feeling anxious or worried about something.

I don't sleep in my workout clothes as I used to (think of the mixed message that sends to our brains) but have pajamas, nightdresses, even T-shirts dedicated to sleep. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile or lavender tea if I want something warm and comforting before going to bed. I love reading real, physical books - especially poetry, novels and books that have nothing to do with work.

CWM: You have mentioned in the past that many people see their lack of sleep as a badge of honor. How do we change our culture to ensure that people appreciate the benefits of sleep?

Arianna Huffington:

Yes. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he'd gotten only our hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five! Fortunately, a broader cultural shift is already underway, as we redefine what we value and change workplace culture so that walking around sleep-deprived becomes stigmatized instead of lauded.

And perhaps those who equate sleep with laziness or lack of dedication can be convinced of the benefits of sleep by looking at what's going on in a world that is the ultimate in pragmatism, where performance and winning are everything: sports. To professional athletes, sleep is not about spirituality, work-life balance, or even health and well-being; it's all about performance. It's about what works, about using every available tool to increase the chances of winning.

Learn about how you can become a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist→