That’s Men: People without sleep can destroy our lives


An MEP (not Irish) complained recently that the talks that led to the bank guarantee in 2008 took place in the middle of the night when everybody was tired. The implication was that sleepy people make bad decisions.

I have written before about the importance of sleep for health but here is a situation in which lack of sleep could have led to an outcome that will affect us for generations. How many poor decisions are made every day or night of the week by people who haven’t had enough sleep but who do the macho thing of pushing on with the negotiations to the bitter end?

We will never know. But it’s now an expected part of big set-piece talks in industrial relations disputes. For instance, we will be watching Ingrid Miley on the RTÉ news bulletins standing in front of the Labour Relations Commission building late into the night, with the expectation that she will still be there in the early hours of the morning. Only after that exercise in sleeplessness will peace be declared.

Is this a way to make good decisions? I suspect not, but I’m pretty sure that trade-union members are more likely to accept a settlement reached behind closed doors at 4am following a slugfest between both sides, than the same settlement reached quickly and efficiently at 2pm. And the same applies to the people on the management side.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown refers to a study of violinists which found that the very best spent far more time practising than those who were just below them in excellence.

That, I would have thought, is only to be expected. But what McKeown is really interested in is the second most important factor: the best violinists slept for an hour a day longer than the others. In every 24 hours, they slept for an average of 8.6 hours which, let’s face it, for most of us is an unheard-of occurrence. They also took naps in the afternoon: about 2.8 hours’ worth a week.

What’s interesting is that these violinists were in pursuit of excellence but found sleep to be absolutely essential in achieving that.

McKeown quotes Charles A Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, as saying that people who deprive themselves of sleep – for example, by getting just four or five hours a night for a week – impair their performance to the same extent as people who have too much to drink.

Think about the implications of that for industry and, especially, for financial stability. Frightening accounts have come out of Wall Street about the lack of sleep in a culture that devalues normal human behaviour and needs.

Bad decisions

Wall Street and the rest of the financial services industry have the capacity to crash our economies and destroy lives, as we know to our cost. People without sleep make bad decisions that can wreck the hopes of other people thousands of miles away who they will never see.

Perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The Wall Street Journal has described sleep as the new status symbol among entrepreneurs. And road-safety campaigns are emphasising the importance of not driving when you’re nodding off: crashes involving sleeping drivers can take place at high speed with catastrophic results.

So, perhaps our attitude to sleep is changing for the better. Still, it’s far too soon to hope we are the last generation to devalue sleep. For instance, it may be well established that a nap during the day improves performance, but who wants to be caught snoozing at their desk?

But if it’s true that sleep deprivation contributes to bad decisions, we won’t be the last generation to live with the effects of sleep deprivation in the form of brutal levels of national debt arising from that sleepless night in 2008.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go – Peace in your Pocket. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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