Let's say you believed deeply in the importance of sleep health, and you wanted to start a movement to change people's attitudes and behavior. Maybe, like Arianna Huffington, it's a personal crisis that convinces you. Or maybe it's a key piece of research or two that opens your eyes, as it were, to the dangers of too little sleep:
As a choice of cause, you could do a lot worse. Getting sufficient sleep is a need that every human on the planet shares. And for many people, the ability to do that is increasingly under assault, as daily rhythms are disrupted by the changing nature of work and always-on technology. Your arguments for that cause would be helped along by a mountain of evidence about the incidence and costs of sleeplessness, and the efficacy of various interventions. You'd have the advantage of a solid and accumulating knowledge base regarding what works. Yet you'd still have the gratifying ability to move the needle dramatically with your efforts because, for most people, sleep health — their own, their employees', their communities' — hasn't yet become a top-of-mind issue. In the three-legged stool of good health, nutrition and exercise are constantly discussed, while sleep has so far come up short. Put all this together, and it's hard to imagine a cause that would offer you a greater chance to change so many lives for the better.
Even better, you'd have access to a pretty good playbook for how to start a movement. The precedents are out there, and some of the most inspiring of them have been in the realm of public health. We've seen movements succeed in getting people to quit smoking, getting health workers to wash their hands, and getting people to register as organ donors. Smart people are working to codify the best approaches and tools for raising awareness, changing minds, and inciting action. Even if you don't have time to master the rules yourself, there is consulting expertise available for hire.
A key piece of advice in that playbook would be to influence the influencers. Those include, for example, the entertainment industry: What would it take to get scriptwriters and directors to stop portraying people operating on no sleep as models of machismo and dedication? A second major set of influencers to influence would be the tech community. What new apps, for example, could they create to nudge people toward more healthful behavior? And then there are the healthcare and education sectors to influence. These are the trusted professionals with whom people already interact about health and informed behavior. What would it take to make sleep a topic of more of those interactions?
But also note that, on top of all those usual influencers, there is another sector that should be recruited into the movement for better sleep health. That would be the corporate sector — and the rationale for targeting it in particular has four parts:
- Selfish Interest. As the world's largest employers, big companies stand to benefit directly from a greater awareness of the importance of sleep. It makes all the difference to productivity (which is diminished by sleeplessness in the same way it is by drug use or drunkenness), and hits the bottom line, too, in lower healthcare costs.
- Substantial infrastructure. Companies have invaluable capabilities they can apply to a public health campaign, such as communication channels to get the word out and wellness programs to support good habits. They also have the power, through their policies, to change how employees work (and how managers encourage them to).
- Social Influence. As well as having internal, local influence over their own workers, large employers help to establish broader norms in society. It's important to get them focused on the importance of sleep health, because the expectations they create about the keys to good work and success spill over to other realms.
- Sense of Involvement. There's also the fact, perhaps obvious, that the work environments cultivated by many companies are the cause of many people's inadequate sleep. Whether it's a hypercompetitive culture encouraging ambitious employees to burn the midnight oil, or the anxiety of working for a bad boss causing insomnia, or a level of pressure that leaves decision-makers lying awake at night, companies contribute to people's sleep deficits. For some firms, that involvement might translate to a sense of obligation.
For all these reasons, it makes sense to pull more businesses into the movement to change attitudes and behaviors toward sleep. That's why HBR publishes books, interviews, articles, and blog posts on sleep research (and for that matter, tries to save its own staff from evening and weekend work). And it's why we're participating in the Corporate Leaders Summit being hosted this month by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (I'll be moderating a panel there.)
If you're a corporate leader, you're constantly being asked to pitch in on a cause or add power to the arm of some activist. This is one of those cases where your answer should be yes. You have the reasons and you have the means to change today's dysfunctional culture around sleep — and so many will rest easier when you do.