Arianna Huffington on sleep, burnout culture and a new FOMO

For National Sleep Day, we spoke to Arianna Huffington what companies can do to help their employees’ sleep habits, and her company Thrive’s new app.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.” Apparently, he was the only one that felt this way (we’ll just disregard his crippling alcoholism for now) as most Americans feel that sleep is overrated and something they can do without.

According to The National Sleep Foundation, only 27% of U.S. adults get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night during the week. The average today is around 6.8 hours, which is over an hour less than people in the 1940s. In other words, sleep isn’t a priority.

As you can imagine a big part of that sleep deterioration is due to the fact that we spend the majority of our day with our faces glued to screens, both big and small. That ominous blue light really messes with our circadian rhythms leading to mediocre sleep patterns. “I’m so tired” has become the new status symbol as if it proves how busy and important you are even though tired employees cost the U.S. economy up to $411 billion every year.

But someone who is overtired and not making sleep a priority is Arianna Huffington. The founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, a company that focuses on helping people put their wellness first, had a major a-ha moment in 2007 when she collapsed due to exhaustion and broke her cheekbone. She had a wake-up call and started to study sleep and how it impacts our health, both physical and mental.

She called it the “third metric” of success and wrote two books on the subject, gave an amazing TED Talk on the subject, and then finally left The Huffington Post to start Thrive Global. Huffington insists she is only able to be such a powerhouse in the business world because she prioritizes sleep.

With today being National Sleep Day we thought it only made sense to talk to one of the world’s leading experts on sleep. Huffington spoke with Ladders about Thrive’s new app as well as what companies can do to help their employees’ sleep habits:

On how society can get over this culture of bragging about how tired we are

“It’s happening, but much too slowly. In too many companies, burnout and long hours are taken as proxies for commitment and dedication. That’s bad in every way — it’s bad for the company because burned out people don’t perform nearly as well, and it’s bad for us because it affects both every aspect of our physical and mental health and our performance and productivity.

“What we need is for more leaders to model a more effective and sustainable way of working and incentivize the change throughout their organizations. It’s happening – more and more athletes and CEOs are becoming new role models of success — but we need to accelerate the culture change, because so many lives are at stake.”

On the best ways companies can help employees prioritize sleep

“The most important thing employers can do is to model change at the top. Even the best well-being plans won’t be maximized if there’s no buy-in from senior management to change the incentive structure. If HR is saying one thing, but senior management is still incentivizing a burnout culture and sleep deprivation, we know which message most employees will listen to.

“Beyond that, there are things employers can do like limit evening and weekend work emails, and help employees prioritize so they can get their work done during normal work hours. But the most effective thing employers can do is incentivize getting better sleep by doing it themselves.”

On how to start weaning ourselves off gadgets

“A great place to start is to create device-free time and space at the beginning and the end of your day. So in the evening, as part of your bedtime routine, escort your phone out of your bedroom so it can charge somewhere else. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep — our to-do lists, our inboxes, the demands of the world.

“So putting it to bed outside your bedroom as a regular part of your bedtime ritual makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone. And in the morning, instead of reaching for your phone right when you wake up, create some space by taking a few minutes to breathe, or meditate, or just set your intention for the day — not just what you want to get done but what kind of day you want to have.

“That can stay with you the rest of the day. Creating this device-free, human-focused time bookending your day is not only valuable in and of itself, it can also reinforce your sense of being in control of your relationship with technology for the rest of the day.”

If you need some help putting your gadgets to bed Thrive has also released a newly redesigned Phone Bed. It is literally a bed for your phones and tablets, meant to be put outside your bedroom. It will charge them but also cover them up so both you and them get a good night of uninterrupted sleep.

Phone bed
The phone bed

On how the Thrive App helps us with our technology addiction

“It helps by giving us the tools to take a break from our phones and set goals and limits for specific apps. When you put your phone into “Thrive Mode” it limits all notifications, calls, and texts except for those from people you’ve specified on your VIP List.

“And it’s also bi-directional. So if you’re in Thrive Mode for the next hour, and I text you, I’ll get a text back that you’re in Thrive Mode, which creates a new kind of FOMO, because it makes me wonder, “What’s she doing while she’s disconnecting? What am I missing out on?” I’ll be intrigued and want to try it myself. And that’s why we want The Thrive App to be more than just a product. We want it to have a multiplier effect that begins to create new cultural norms around how we use technology. Instead of only valuing always being on, we begin to value regularly unplugging and recharging.

“The app not only allows people to set boundaries with technology in their own lives, but it’s also helping create new cultural norms around how we use technology. So instead of only valuing always being on, we begin to value regularly unplugging and recharging.”

On what to do when you start to feel run down

“Short of committing to getting enough sleep later that night, I’ll stop and take a few minutes to do some breathing exercises to recharge. It doesn’t take a long time — it’s more about interrupting the cycle of stress. Also, I’m a big believer in naps.”

Meredith Lepore|is the Deputy Editor of Ladders and can be reached at mlepore@theladders.com.