Vicki-Culpin_onlineInterview with sleep researcher, Professor Vicki Culpin

The famous German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder said: “I can sleep when I’m dead”. For a long time, sleep was considered as something for weaklings and slowpokes. To this day, a lot of managers boast of their ability to get by on little sleep, such as Marissa Mayer form Yahoo, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk or Donald Trump, US presidential nominee. But recent research shows that sleep has a significant impact on managers’ performance, on their physical health and on their social and emotional life. Should organisations therefore make sleep their business as they do already with other aspects of well-being? We interviewed sleep researcher Prof. Vicki Culpin from the private business school Ashridge Executive Education, who will be a keynote speaker at the exhibition Zukunft Personal in October.

Vicki, did you sleep well last night?

I can’t always guarantee that I do. I give myself a bit of a hard time when I don’t get seven or eight hours. But I do try really hard to sleep well because it would be critical otherwise, wouldn’t it?

That’s your fate as a sleep expert to set an example, I suppose. Would you recommend that everybody sleeps seven to eight hours or how much sleep do we need?

Sleep is very individual! Some people can be naturally short sleepers und some naturally long sleepers. However, the American Sleep Association is stating that on average a healthy adult aged between 20 to 60 roughly needs between seven and nine hours of sleep at night to retain their health. And in our latest research, the average was below that. But the problem is not that we sleep less than we should sometimes, it is about the consistency of the sleep loss. So if it’s chronic, if someone sleeps poorly over a longer period of time, it really starts to have significant effects on various things such as cognition and physical health.

To what extent do we work better if we sleep well?

We carried out a very large survey of over a thousand people asking a variety of questions both about the quality and quantity of their sleep and how it affected them in the job. There’s some fantastic sleep research out there, but it tends to focus on a quite specific population such as pilots, doctors or long distance lorry drivers or on people with clinical disorders. They are of course all very important but I am much more interested in how this shows up in normal people in organisational life.

What we actually found was that the amount of sleep people were reporting didn’t really change according to the level of their seniority. So people weren’t sleeping enough, about six and a half hours, and that was right across the organisation.

The kind of effects people were noticing due to poor sleep was difficulty to interact with colleagues, to concentrate, to have an effective meeting. They found that their social life suffered, that they got more headaches and that they caught a cold more easily. And one thing was very interesting: junior people in the organisation were reporting more effects than senior people.

How do you explain that?

Given that people in more junior positions were not sleeping less than senior people, there is no reason to think that it was the amount of sleep they were getting that affected them more. It is probably everything else that is going on. It may be that junior people are more prepared to talk openly about the effects of poor sleep because it’s seen less as career suicide. It may be that more senior people are perhaps a little savvier or they are just ashamed to talk about this. And it also may be that more senior people get to this position because they are genuinely less affected by poor sleep. They might have better mechanisms to cope with it or have some kind of genetic predisposition.

At this point, we don’t know what the explanations are, but the key message is: don’t assume that this is only an issue for employees who are dealing with the greatest level of pressure and stress. This is an organisation-wide issue. My passion is to drive the message home that from a job perspective we have a responsibility to address this across all levels from junior colleagues right up to the CEO.

#CorporateHealth Employees aren't sleeping enough - from junior people to the CEO @Ashridge_Biz Click To Tweet

You mentioned some effects already. How does poor sleep affect our decision making?

It affects the quality of the decision you make and the consequences of the accuracy of the decision. For some people, their ability to make decisions slows down, all of their information processing becomes a little bit slower. You have difficulties concentrating and paying attention. What can also happen is that you may make riskier decisions because your ability to assimilate the information and make a more rational decision diminishes. And that doesn’t seem to depend on whether you are naturally a risk-taking individual or a risk-averse individual. It seems to be that wherever you are on the risk continuum, there is a tendency to take more risks. A number of studies show that you also become more confident in the decisions that you make.

But it also depends on the quality of our sleep, doesn’t it? If we sleep badly or if we are poor sleepers in general, what can we do?

Absolutely, there are a number of things to pay attention to, even though it’s always personal choice. If we take the sleep environment to start with: we tend to fall asleep when our core body temperature is very slightly below normal. Sometimes it’s quite tempting to have our bedroom nice and warm because it feels relaxing. But often that can affect the quality of our sleep.

The second thing is light. Our sleep cycle is dictated by a variety of things but fundamentally we are disturbed by light coming on and light going off. So when it is dark, it is a cue to our body that it is time to sleep and when it is light that it is time to wake up. If you have poor quality curtains and it gets light very early in the morning, your body will register that and bring you into light sleep. That will make you more likely to wake up earlier than possibly you want to. So if you are disturbed by light, particularly if you live in a city where you have street lights outside, then it is worth investigating blackout curtains or blackout blinds. The flipside is that you need a very good alarm clock.

The third thing is the quality of your mattress and your pillow. A lot of people talk about how often you should change these types of things. For me it’s more important if they feel comfortable. Are you waking up with a bit of a sore neck or a headache?

#CorporateHealth poor sleep affects our decision making: we make riskier decisions @Ashridge_Biz Click To Tweet

What would you recommend to wind down before sleep?

There are some things you can do about your winding down routine. If you are watching TV, using a tablet or smart phone or reading in bed – all these things actually mean it takes longer for you to fall asleep. Anything that is cognitively engaging can take you longer to wind down because your brain is still very active. So if you like reading before bed I suggest you that you try to read a novel that is less gripping than a book you would perhaps read in the day.

Some people are very much affected by caffeine. If it doesn’t affect your sleep, don’t worry about it. But if you find that you are taking longer to fall asleep, than you perhaps need to pay attention to your caffeine intake. Caffeine stays in the body a long time. So if it is affecting your sleep, have it in the morning and try not to drink any caffeine after lunch, 1 or 2 pm at the latest, and just drink decaffeinated drinks for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Another aspect of food and drink intake is that very spicy food or food that lies heavily in your stomach will often take longer to metabolise in the evening. Try not to eat too late and if you are eating late, try not to eat very spicy food.

The next one is exercise: it is fantastic to improve the quality of your sleep. It has particular effects on the sleep cycle, it doesn’t matter about the technicalities. If you find it difficult to wind down, it might be worth considering some light exercise, it doesn’t have to be super vigorous. Again, make sure that it is not too close to bedtime, leave at least a two-to-three hour gap or more if possible.

And finally alcohol: we see it as a relaxant. People tend to fall asleep more quickly when they have had a glass or two and we think that is a good thing for improving our sleep. What actually happens is the quality of your sleep is often poorer. If you are waking up a lot or you wake up the next morning and feel that you haven’t had a restful night sleep, don’t drink alcohol close to bedtime.

Do you have any tips on what we can do if we wake up in the night? Count sheep?

Everybody wakes up during the night and sometimes we are not aware of it because we are in light sleep and we fall back to sleep again. Some people are very lucky and they are never aware of waking up in the night. Worrying about it often makes things worse. But I appreciate that in the middle of the night, particularly if you have a partner who is lying next to you and might wake up as well, it can get stressful when you can’t stop thinking about the impact that this may have the next day.

What you can do depends on how long you are awake for. But the minute you turn the light on and do something to cognitively engage yourself such as pick up a book, look at your phone or watch TV – you are giving your body a trigger to say, “oh, it’s time to wake up”. I know this is really hard, but if you possibly can, don’t turn the light on, don’t read, don’t watch TV. Just lie there in the dark. If you are getting anxious and focused on not being able to sleep, you need to sort of empty your head. Something repetitious like counting sheep seems to be personal preference. Some say it’s very effective, a bit like meditation. Other people say that concentrating so hard on counting makes them quite awake. Sometimes it is about finding what works for you. The golden rule is: anything that will make your brain work and make you start thinking is likely to make it harder to get back to sleep.

#CorporateHealth anything that will make your brain work makes it harder to wind down #sleep @Ashridge_Biz Click To Tweet

Sometimes we have the best ideas at night even if we don’t feel we are sleeping badly. How can you explain that – what’s happening there?

This a really fascinating area. We know that sleep is very important for memory consolidation although the exact mechanisms are still quite unclear. So all of the events, all of the things we’ve learned, all of the things we’ve experienced, seen, tasted and touched during the day are basically sorted out or filed in our brain during sleep.

Something is happening to the brain during sleep that allows us to virtually look at the big picture and join the dots because the brain is working out the best place to store the different events that have occurred during the day. It is almost like opening the files of things we haven’t thought about for a while and seeing if things fit together. So there is a kind of thought process and that’s when some of these great ideas might happen. People who are very creative, who paint, draw or write, they also use dreams. A lot of people say that something happens during dreaming that enables them to be more creative the next day.

Is dreaming a sign of good or bad sleep?

What we are very certain about is that most people dream regularly through the night in certain periods of time on their sleep cycle. And dream sleep is important. Good quality sleep requires all the different types of sleep: dream sleep, light sleep and deep sleep, in different portions and at different times during the night. What can sometimes happen if we have a poor night’s sleep is that we had a lot of light sleep and a lot of dream sleep. And then sometimes when we wake up in the morning we feel that we did not have any really good quality sleep, which means that we did not have a deep sleep. But sometimes we feel that we’ve been dreaming all night long and actually we haven’t but just had a lot of dreams in the five to fifteen minutes before we woke up. And those are the dreams that we are more likely to remember.

How can a nap during the day offset a poor night’s sleep?

There are two aspects to napping: one of them is the sort of ten or fifteen minutes’ nap. A nap of that length is like a deep meditation or a mindfulness exercise. That is enough to feel rested but you don’t fall into a deep sleep. Because if you do, and we’ve all done that on a  Saturday afternoon when we fall asleep on the sofa, you feel very groggy, disoriented or sometimes have a bit of a headache, you are not quite sure where you are and it takes you a long time to wake up. And you don’t want that, especially not in the workplace. Often you feel worse than if you haven’t had a nap at all.

The other sort of napping is to go to an entire sleep cycle which is about an hour to an hour and a half. That is sufficient to get the memory consolidation, for example from experiences in the morning. You feel very relaxed and regenerated. If you are really chronically sleep-deprived, a one-and-half-hour nap in the afternoon would be wonderful. Of course pragmatically very few people will be able to do that at work.

And on top of that there is some kind of health warning. Sleep is based on our 24-hour circadian rhythm and also basically on how tired we feel, the so-called drive for sleep. The longer we stay awake, the more tired we become. So there is a 24-hour cycle going on with dark and light and night and day. And also a second cycle that drives how tired we are which depends on how long we have been awake. If you are having a nap in the afternoon, especially if it is a long one, it actually reduces your drive for sleep, so you might find it more difficult to fall asleep at night. What you don’t want is to get into this vicious circle of having a nap in the afternoon and not being tired until midnight or one o’clock. And then not getting enough sleep during the night which means that you need a nap in the afternoon…

So do you recommend a nap at the workplace?

It is personal preference, some people can do it and say, it’s fantastic. Other people struggle to do it. And probably it’s practice. In the organisation it depends on your job and your role and how pragmatic it is to have that break from the cognitive effort of what you have been doing. Secondly, it is often not about the sleep but about the break from the job that you are doing. So having a walk, having a lunch break away from your desk, having a conversation with another colleague can often be as effective as sleep.

Some people are naturally larks. That is their height of energy is very early in the morning. Some people are naturally owls which means that their peak is later in the night. And if you are a natural lark, then you often suffer from the post lunch gap. You really struggle until three o’clock in the afternoon because you have passed your peak. For those individuals, it might be very effective to have that nap in the afternoon.

For larks (peak of energy in the morning) a nap in the afternoon might be effective #sleep @Ashridge_Biz Click To Tweet

Recently, a US health insurance company announced that their employees can earn part of their salary in sleep: the boss pays bonuses to especially well-rested employees. Is this a precedent for a sleep revolution in organisational life?

In fact, this company in America asked employees to wear one of these wireless activity trackers, one of these sport bands that record their sleep. It is a fantastic initiative because it highlights the importance of good sleep. This is a great initiative to encourage employees to take sleep seriously and actively take control of their sleep.

On the other hand, providing people with a financial reward might help some people but doesn’t guarantee a sustainable change in behaviour. If you talk to people about their sleep, often the intention is there. They desperately want a good night’s sleep or want to sleep longer. They don’t necessarily need an incentive but they could do with some strategies to help them such as flexibility in the working day to allow them to come to work later or work later in the evening. They need to work at home one day a week so that they can get to bed at a decent time. They need some help with childcare so that they don’t have to get up in the middle of the night. The next step would be to think about what we can put in place to help people sleep better.

And if you are rewarding sleep, anyone who wants to prove sleep time must reveal personal data. Some critics say that this could be tricky, if companies plan layoffs and have to decide which employees they dismiss. What other dangers could there be?

The idea of collecting health data on these kind of monitors and self-reports have huge positives but also dark sides. What can also happen is that if you collect this data you worry more about it. We know that sleep can be a very fragile thing. So anybody who usually sleeps very well, when they have an early flight next day, they will go to bed saying: “I have to fall asleep really quickly because I have to get up at four o’clock tomorrow morning”. We know that the minute this idea comes into your head, it makes it very difficult for you to fall asleep. People who suffer from insomnia often get caught in that vicious cycle of thinking I really need to get some sleep and I can’t sleep. Whilst being aware of your sleep and the quality of your sleep is the first step to making changes, the problem could be that you are getting obsessed by checking it every single day. So it will be really interesting to see where technology takes us and what the impact of big data will be – not only on sleep but on all these health monitoring aspects.

For a long time managers did boast about their lack of sleep. Now it appears that sleep makes you more successful and that good sleep has many benefits. With that in mind, are we experiencing a social change in the importance of sleep?

About nine years ago, I moved from an academic environment to a more business-centred environment at Ashridge. This was a time when nobody was really talking about health and well-being. Sleep wasn’t really an issue and even worse, it was seen as a badge of honour to work 15-to-17-hour days. Nobody was talking about what the potential side effects, downsides or risks of this type of behaviour were. And so it has been an interesting journey for me. When I was starting out, I was often struggling to have clients or participants in the classroom who understood that this was an important topic but over the last nine years, it has become more and more popular. There have been some very high-profile cases of people being very open about it. And that has made HR directors and L&D directors much more interested in the topic running alongside the well-being agenda in general.

It’s perhaps like sustainability was 10 or 15 years ago, when people started to talk about it and everybody thought it was an important idea for organisations. And look at the sustainability agenda now: it’s just part of organisational DNA, it is still talked about, it is still debated, but it is much more mainstream now. People just have a sustainability strategy or it is just part of their triple bottom line.

Maybe we still need more awareness about the health benefits of sleep?

The problem with sleep research is that we are looking at lots of correlates of sleep. You can say people who sleep poorly tend to be overweight or have a high incidence of cardiovascular disease. But these effects are very difficult to determine because it might be that you have a cardiovascular disease and it affects your sleep. It doesn’t necessarily mean that having poor sleep causes cardiovascular diseases.

We need to know more about how this shows up and how it affects people in organisations. Particularly if we are thinking about the working population becoming older and older. Given that we know that poor sleep affects us in organisational life, does the impact increase as we get older? Plus, older people have multiple health concerns that may play a role. Particularly from a HR point of view, thinking about talent planning, recruitment and retention, health and well-being around employees is an important issue. It takes a lots of studies looking at sleep from very different perspectives until we can say with a high degree of confidence that one thing causes the other. It will take many more years.

Interview: Stefanie Hornung


Agnes Uhereczky, associated Blogger of the Zukunft Personal and co-founder of the WorkLife HUB did a podcast Interview with Vicky Culpin. You can now listen to the podcast:


About Vicki Culpin

Vicki Culpin is a member of faculty at the private business school Ashridge Executive Education and specialises in organisational behaviour, specifically well-being at work. She works with a range of clients, nationally and internationally, from the public, private and cultural sectors and delivers guest lectures around the world on a variety of psychological topics. Vicki studied Psychology at Manchester University, followed by an MPhil and PhD in Psychology from Lancaster University and an MSc in Applied Forensic Psychology from Leicester University. She is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Chartered Psychologist and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She has spent over 17 years in academia, researching memory with a variety of individuals including older adults, children and forensic populations. More recent research and teaching interests include the relationship between sleep, well-being and derailment and the relationship between sleep and resilience in management populations.

Event tip:

Keynote speech by Prof. Vicki Culpin at the exhibition Zukunft Personal:

The wake-up call: The importance of sleep in organisational life
Thursday, 20 October 2016, 12 noon to 1.30 p.m., Forum 1, Hall 2.1, Koelnmesse

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