Why We Sleep and The Business of Sleep reviews: Why the business world should care about getting more shut-eye

Francesca Washtell
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Picture taken on October 29, 2010 in Par
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It quickly becomes clear while reading The Business of Sleep that sleep is the ultimate corporate tool.

Being better rested makes employees more creative, more innovative, more emotionally intelligent, better decision-makers and need fewer sick days. It’s nothing short of an HR miracle cure.

Viral articles covering methods for improving your sleep routines, or ‘sleep hygiene’, have proliferated in the last few years, helped along by vocal advocates such as Arianna Huffington. Much of this is concentrated in the health and wellbeing space, fitting as it does into the wider canon of detox and “switching off” literature; sleep, after all, is the definitive way to unplug yourself.

As The Business of Sleep’s author Vicki Culpin argues, there’s a strong case for sleep to become an organisational, as well as a personal, priority. The cost to the UK’s economy of the business world’s sleep deficit (measured in higher mortality rates and lower productivity) is $36.7bn-$50bn a year, she mentions early on, or between one and two per cent of GDP.

Culpin, an organisational behaviour professor at Ashridge Executive Education, does a good job of breaking down the consequences of a lack of sleep before turning to the most frequent causes, from jet lag to the effects of using technology late at night to temperature and external noise.

It’s a well-structured overview of the basic science of sleep which is accessible to the layman, and contains several end-of-chapter advice lists that will help you take back control of your sleep hygiene (and also vindicate bedsock wearers – they cool down your core body temperature, which helps you drop off).

It is a shame, then, that Culpin’s book has been released so soon after Why We Sleep, the wildly successful volume by British neuroscientist Matthew Walker that briefly knocked Sapiens off the Sunday Times bestseller list top-spot. Why We Sleep has fast become a phenomenon, with strong backing from word-of-mouth recommendations (at one point a waitress stopped me in a café to gush about it when she saw I was reading it, something less common with non-fiction).

While The Business of Sleep seems at first glance to be comprehensive, it is limp in comparison with Why We Sleep and contains little of its urgency. By the end of The Business of Sleep I felt better informed and was convinced I had a few life hacks that would boost my shut-eye. About a third of the way through Why We Sleep I was converted to Walker’s uncompromising stance that if you want to be a healthy, high-functioning member of society, sleep comes first, and everything else comes second. It’s the kind of book that can’t help but change your life.

Why We Sleep is popular science writing at its best. It’s witty, passionate, but also exhaustive in its analysis. Our understanding of sleep has transformed in the last century, from something we considered as almost an afterthought to a process scientists now argue is the backbone of health. The advances in sleep science are coming in thick and fast, bringing with them a greater understanding of the types of sleep we need at different times of life and how a lack of it contributes to everything from our day-to-day functioning to complex diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The same advances can’t yet be said about organisational culture. Nike and Google have both adopted more flexible work practices to help employees gear their workdays to their ideal sleep chronotype of morning larks and night owls, Walker outlines, but this is far from widespread.

Where The Business of Sleep falls short is where it could ultimately contribute: in addressing why business has racked up such an extreme sleep deficit. A book about sleep and the business world could add a lot to the debate about why our culture has turned against sleep, but Culpin doesn’t, and I was left wanting more. There are fleeting mentions about why we need an end to the “cult of manly wakefulness” and about how she’s learned “organisational culture continues to perpetuate the myth that presenteeism and productivity are the same thing”, but she doesn’t delve any further into why this has become so pervasive and how it could be changed.

These are important books, but if the culture in the business world doesn’t change then readers risk being armed with so much knowledge about how bad sleep deprivation is that, at busy times, it will be just another thing keeping them up at night.

The Business of Sleep: How Sleeping Better Can Transform Your Career | Vicki Culpin | Bloomsbury Business | £14.99

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams | Matthew Walker | Penguin Books | £9.99

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