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Commercial Question

Sleepless in the City: do we need a wake-up call?

updated on 29 May 2018


It's no secret that long working hours are common across the City, but what are the risks for employees (and their employers) of regularly getting fewer than seven hours of sleep?


Research into sleep and its functions has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Everyone knows, of course, that a day after only a few hours of sleep is usually neither as enjoyable nor as productive as a day when well-rested and firing on all cylinders. However, there's more to sleep deprivation than merely feeling a bit bleary after lunch and developing a moderate caffeine habit. The risks of chronic sleep deprivation are not widely known, yet they are extremely serious, and costing businesses money – and employees their lives.

What is normal?

Almost every City lawyer has a war story about being in the trenches of a completion and heroically making it to the finish line despite lack of shut-eye. Everyone has a sleepless night occasionally, and staying up to get a deal over the line is not normally cause for alarm.

However, what most of us don't recognise is that many adults are chronically under-slept over long periods of time, a trend which the pressures of working in the City can only exacerbate. In the UK, approximately 40% of adults report sleeping fewer than seven hours a night as a rule.

Public figures and business leaders have long boasted of their ability to do without sleep (see Margaret Thatcher, Marissa Mayer and Donald Trump – but the tradition goes back as far as Michelangelo). From this perspective, sleep is a self-indulgent hobby for the weak, lazy and ambitionless. However, the World Health Organisation insists that we need eight hours a night, and that the six hours or fewer which are common in busy working professionals is, simply, not enough. Who are we to believe?

We are working longer

We know that sleeplessness can be induced by City working patterns. At some institutions, employees can expect to work around 70-100 hours a week as a matter of course, and get only four hours' sleep much of the time. Returning home only to shower and don fresh clothing while the taxi waits outside is common enough in banking circles to have been (affectionately?) dubbed the 'magic roundabout'.

Across most other professions, demanding targets for hours worked or revenue generated keep workers at their desks. There is no escaping that working patterns have changed over the last few decades, especially after the advent of laptops and mobile phones: for many, either the office always stays with you, or you always stay in the office.

Longer does not equal harder

It is obvious that when someone is under-slept, they are not performing optimally. Less obvious is the staggering extent a 'normal' amount of sleep deprivation has on every aspect of performance; accuracy, creativity, productivity – you name it, it suffers. Studies have shown that when people attempt to learn new information in a condition of sleep deprivation, they retain much less. Alternatively, if you are fully awake when attempting to learn but then pull an all-nighter, retention also suffers because sleep plays a crucial role in the consolidation of memories, so the brain will not process the day's 'input' and file it into memory storage, as it were. Every business ideally wants its employees to absorb information – about their specialism, about the firm, about the markets, about relevant current events – like a sponge. Short-sleeping directly undermines this.  

Studies in which volunteers were given easy but repetitive tasks have highlighted the impact of sleep deprivation on concentration: after one night of missed sleep, errors increase by over 400%. Interestingly, in one study, the performance of participants permitted four hours' sleep a day deteriorated to the same astonishing error rate before the week was out, and that of those allowed a relatively generous six hours took just 10 days to fall to the same dire level. Evidently, it merely takes common weariness, not draconian hours or dramatic deprivation, for the clumsy errors to creep in: emails sent to the wrong recipient (usually awkward, sometimes entertaining and occasionally, catastrophic), documents not proofread properly, and sentences missing small but key words like 'not'. It is hard to put a price tag on such errors, but it cannot be denied that messy mistakes harm an individual's, and a firm's, reputation.

Actually, a price tag has been put on it. Researchers have concluded that reduced productivity due to sleep deprivation costs US companies between $2,000 and $3,500 per employee per year. Multiply this by number of employees, and/or number of years worked by each employee, and the numbers begin to look alarming.

What about team bonding? Seeing an all-nighter through to completion provides a real experience for a team – the solidarity at the coalface and the shared euphoria when the deal is finally done. Let's also not forget the many benefits of an enjoyable evening propping up the bar until late (or early) with colleagues or clients. Clearly, there are interests to be balanced.

Longer does equal shorter (in terms of lifespan)

Short term, should that sleep-deprived employee be driving home? An AAA study found that missing two to three hours of sleep a day, compared to sleeping for seven hours, more than quadruples a driver's risk of an accident.

Thinking of employee health long-term, chronic sleep deprivation interferes on many levels. Sleep boosts the immune system, so an under-slept individual is more than twice as likely to catch a minor infection. The blood sugar levels of an exhausted individual go haywire, resembling those of a pre-diabetic. Risk of cancer goes up by a formidable 40% in individuals sleeping six hours a night or fewer (compared to those sleeping seven hours or more). Short-sleeping over long periods has been linked with Alzheimer's.

Perhaps it is easy to become used to the idea that most fun things we might like to do elevate the risk of cancer. It is widely known that drinking alcohol or fizzy drinks, eating sugary foods or red meat or chips, and smoking do it… and according to the popular press, so can using Facebook, bubble bath and wearing flip-flops. So, in a way, it's hardly surprising that staying up late does too. Research has found that a single night of four hours' sleep decimates the heroic immune cells which tackle cancerous cells by 70%. The link between inadequate sleep and cancer is so well established that the WHO has deemed night-shift work, which is strongly linked to disrupted sleep, a 'probable carcinogen'. As far back as 2009, the Danish government began paying compensation to shift workers who developed cancer after years of working nights.

The link to Alzheimer's is especially disturbing. The condition itself has long been linked to insomnia and sleep disturbance, but recent research suggests that this relationship goes two ways. No-one is suggesting, of course, that lots of sleep will cure Alzheimer's or postpone it indefinitely. However, academics are seriously investigating the theory that habitual, adequate sleep delays its onset – and that inadequate sleep accelerates it. Rates of Alzheimer's have increased so that 2% of people between a relatively youthful 65 and 69 years old now suffer from it. Sleep deprivation could be the missing piece of the puzzle that helps society make significant progress with the prevention of this illness – otherwise, the Alzheimer's Society estimates that there will be one million people in the UK with the condition by 2025.

A City professional, by and large, does not excel at their job because of strength or speed, or any demanding physical skill. Their key asset is brainpower, whether in the realms of logic and problem-solving, rigorous analysis, creativity and innovation, or charisma and emotional intelligence. As they gain knowledge and experience, so does their mental resource become increasingly valuable and their position more prestigious. Surely, any risk to such a person's grey matter is cause for a rethink – especially for a threat as grave as Alzheimer's. As retirement ages creep up to cope with a longer-lived population, employees' continued brain health becomes a very relevant issue to the workplace as well as to the individuals themselves.

What if I'm special?

Many people like to insist that they get by fine on four or five hours a night. There are, indeed, a very few lucky people that can do this with no obvious health deterioration, and the press loves to report on them. But this ability is linked to a particular gene and is so rare that you are more likely to be hit by lightning than be one of the fortunate elite.

This doesn't stack up

It makes no sense that most City businesses, which are in most ways extremely health-and-safety conscious, risk employee health in this way. Office spaces are carefully evaluated for trip and hazard risk, windows do not open wide enough to permit accidents, canteens offer healthy options at every meal, and many firms offer a beguiling selection of health and wellbeing benefits such as subsidised gym memberships, dental care, counselling/therapy and health insurance. And yet, the culture of long hours which poses such risks is allowed to flourish unchecked.

There are a few institutions with a 'nap culture' which prize and promote their employees' sleep (famously, NASA, but closer to home we have Google and their nap pods), but these are very much the exceptions to the rule.

What could be done?

It appears that sleeping six hours a night carries a great deal of risk, both professionally and personally. Still, it is easy to write this problem off as an inescapable condition of the City lifestyle. Along with the adrenalin, status, money and fancy lunches come the long days. CEOs, bankers and fund managers are paid a lot, after all – these hours are arguably what they are being paid for.

However, we are moving in the right direction. In recent years, the legal profession has seen trends towards agile working, where lawyers can work from home, and towards flexible working, where people can negotiate, and cut, their hours to suit their needs better. Primarily, these are seen as the profession evolving to better accommodate fee-earners with family responsibilities and thus encourage gender parity – but such options certainly can't hurt from a sleep perspective either.

Are we moving fast enough, though? A factor which slows change is that the City is populated with incredibly ambitious, driven individuals, who are loath to admit to anything that could be taken as a sign of weakness. Desire for sleep, even though it is fundamental to survival, even after prolonged deprivation, could potentially be taken by an unsympathetic boss as an inability to keep up with one's peers or as a simple lack of work ethic.

However, there are definitely measures that could be taken across the City to battle this sleep-deprivation epidemic. Happily, some institutions have adopted some of these already, but consistent usage is certainly not widespread:

  • No 'facetime' culture – this is the most egregious example of an individual losing precious hours of sleep opportunity time for no-one's gain.
  • No fixed/billable hours targets, as these are notorious for keeping employees in the office late during less busy periods when they could be recharging.
  • Allowing employees to work from home if practicable – the hours saved by not commuting can only help sleep opportunity time.
  • A free taxi home provided for anyone working later than a certain time, and a free taxi back to the office the next day, to prevent exhausted individuals attempting to drive home so that the car is on the drive for the next morning's commute.
  • At institutions with sleep pods, no stigma attached to (and possibly even encouragement of) their use during the lunch break or quiet periods for a quick power nap (as little as five minutes can apparently be beneficial).
  • A system where one or two people in a team on a certain matter are 'on call' each day, or week, but the other members are allowed to turn their phones off for the evening and relax properly, promoting good sleep (a system already used in communications teams, where being 'on call' can demand extremely quick-thinking).
  • A staggered system where, in order to have maximum responsiveness, some members of the team come in early (say, 8:00am to 5:00pm) and others much later (perhaps 12:00pm to 9:00pm) depending on their natural preference.
  • If punishing hours cannot be prevented, time off in lieu to be taken seriously and given generously to allow people to repay their sleep debts as best they can, insofar as that is possible.

In the same way that the public attitude towards smoking has generally taken a U-turn (from it being cool, sexy and James Bond doing it, to smokers dwindling in number and being banished outside to the cold and rain), if we prioritise employee wellbeing, workplace attitudes towards long hours should change from, "She puts in 16-hour days, isn't it impressive" to "I see you've been putting in a streak of 16-hour days, and this cannot continue", in the same way that an employee would be immediately reprimanded if they lit up indoors. Both behaviours are dangerous and neither should be encouraged.

Lauren Clark-Hughes is a trainee solicitor in the derivatives and structured products practice at Travers Smith LLP.