Burnout: The Enemy of Sleep

By Olga Khazan
Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

ASPEN, Colo.—Seven years ago, Arianna Huffington went on a college tour with her daughter, whose only request was "Mommy, no Blackberry" for the duration of the visit. Huffington consented, and after each long day of strolling through manicured lawns and stately lecture halls, the pair would have dinner and return to their hotel. Then, at about 10 p.m., Huffington would hop on her laptop and commence working, and she would keep at it until 2 or 3 in the morning. She'd then sleep for two or three hours, and then wake up early and start working again. 

"The Huffington Post was two years old at that point, and I felt it demanded my constant attention," she recently explained to an audience of hundreds at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-organized by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. 

When she returned home to New York, Huffington was standing in her living room one day when she collapsed, hitting her head on a desk on the way down and breaking her cheekbone. The accident, which she said was caused by exhaustion, served as a "wake-up call," she said.

"That’s really what started me asking some of these big questions that we so often stop asking after we leave college—like, what is a good life, what is success?" she said. "Because while by conventional definitions of success, I was successful, by any sane definition of success, if you wake up in a pool of blood, and nobody has shot you, you are not successful."

That realization eventually became Huffington's most recent book, ThriveThe Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

"The book is really three things converging. It is my own personal journey, it’s all the science with 55 pages of scientific endnotes," she said. "I want to convince the most stubborn skeptic that this is not some new-agey California, flakey idea, that this is really grounded in neuroscience and the latest findings."

Huffington's new big idea is that in pursuit of ever-elusive markers of success, we are working ourselves to the point of burnout—that we've created a "sweat shop," with ourselves starring as both the ruthless foremen and the aching workers.

She points to studies showing that Americans sleep less now than they did a few decades ago. She recommends that we recommit to the idea that life isn't all about accumulating all the money and power you can. 

What could a woman who already has money and power possibly want?

More sleep.

Here's how Huffington gets it, as she described in her speech:

  • "I went from four to five hours to seven to eight hours. And now, I am pretty religious about it. I also learned that if I am going to keep to this, it means learning that 'no' is a complete sentence. And it often means saying no to good things. But I don’t like anymore the feeling of walking through my day like a zombie."
  • "Start by getting 30 minutes more than you are getting now. Everybody has 30 minutes."
  • "Have a 'thrive buddy'—someone who can help you if you are tempted to binge-watch Breaking Bad [in lieu of sleeping]. You can call your thrive buddy and they can talk you down."
  • "At the end of each day, think of something that no longer serves you. It could be a grudge you are holding against someone, someone you’re angry with, or it can be a project that you started in your head, but you’re not really going to do anything about it. It is very liberating to realize you can complete a project by dropping it." 
  • "At the end of the day, pick a time when you turn off all of your devices and gently escort them out of your bedroom. It’s terribly important. Because otherwise, if you have it charging by your bed, and you wake up in the middle of the night for whatever reason, you're going to be tempted. You allow your daytime with its challenges and problems that we all have to deal with to intrude into your recharging night time."
  • "When you get up in the morning, one thing that has made a big difference in my life is not to immediately go to my smartphone. Take, like, one minute." 
Ruben Sprich/Reuters

She's also waged war on multitasking—HuffPo meetings are now device-free—and she's cut way down on her TV time. ("And also, it’s so wonderful to have a little silence in your life.")

Her Thrive campaign has left its mark on the HuffPo offices, too: Employees aren't expected to check email when they're not in the office. The company offers yoga and free healthy snacks, and it has two nap rooms that are "perpetually full," she said. 

"Although I must say the other day I was going by one of them and I saw two people coming out of it .… So I thought to myself, 'Whatever it takes to recharge you.'"

Huffington is a funny speaker and a powerful force—one audience member said she made her husband chug his beer so they could be on time for her talk. Her message is even more resonant now that, for many, work has bled thoroughly into life, with smartphones serving as the soggy gauze in between. Who knows, maybe she'll spark a movement toward healthier work practices among other big companies, or at least among their executives: PepsiCo chair Indra Nooyi reportedly sleeps just four hours a night.

But there are some people who Thrive can never help. Burnout may be "civilization's disease," as Pascale Chabot described it, but it's the people toiling at the bottom rungs of that civilization who suffer most. People who earn less than $30,000 per year are far more likely to sleep less than six hours per night than those who earn more than $75,000.

Not every book, or even every pundit, caters to every audience, though.

At the end of her speech, Huffington took questions from the audience, which she asked them to preface by stating how many hours of sleep they get each night. (Most people said eight.) 

One man asked, "Would you agree that there's a certain group of people, a population that doesn't have the luxury, maybe a single father or mother who works two jobs, has to come home and help the children with homework, and then prepare dinner, and goes to bed every night exhausted because they have no other choice. They can't decompress, they can't unwind, because they don't have a choice. We're very fortunate here because we're in a very privileged position. But I think we have to recognize that burnout is probably in some cases unavoidable, for a certain percentage of the population."

Huffington responded by citing a study that followed a cohort of workers who had been laid off from the Illinois Bell Company. Two-thirds of the workers became depressed and sick in the aftermath, but "one third thrived and went on to better jobs, to start their own businesses. Now, the same bad thing happened to all of them, they were all unemployed. But they all reacted differently."

"So," she continued, "how we react to bad things is very dependent on how connected we are to our own strength and wisdom and peace and resilience. And that is really what I am talking about. We all have these resources in us, but a lot of the time we're not connected to them."

Huffington moved on. A woman raised her hand and shared the story of her own burnout, at the tender age of 24, and her later realization that the thing people regret most when loved ones die is not having spent enough time with them.

"Thank you for bringing us all together and making us think, 'Why don’t we take all our lists of 'I wish I hads' and go do them.'" she said.

Huffington praised her for sharing her story and suggested she blog about it on the Huffington Post.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/burnout-the-enemy-of-sleep/373884/