American healthcare company, Aetna, recently caught the imagination of the press and business leaders looking for innovative ways to improve employee welfare and boost productivity.
After a year of trialling the scheme as part of a larger wellness programme, Aetna CEO, Mark Bertolini told CNBC that the firm pays employees a bonus of $25 per night, if they for sleep for more than seven hours a night, for 20 nights in a row. There’s a maximum bonus of $500 per year.
Sleep is “really important,” he explained. “You can get things done quicker if you’re present and prepared, you can’t be prepared if you’re half asleep … Being present in the workplace and making better decisions has a lot to do with our business fundamentals.”
Arianna Huffington – who joined Berolini in the interview – added, “this really changes the cultural delusion that most businesses have been operating under, which has been … the more exhausted and burned out the employees are, the more productive they are.”
Huffington, editor and namesake of news site The Huffington Post, was forced into a radical rethink of her own approach to sleep after injuring herself when collapsing from exhaustion.
She’s since published The Sleep Revolution, in which we learn that business icons including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (8 hours per night), Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (8 hours), venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (7.5 hours), and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet (8.5 hours) make sleep a real priority.
The cost of running on empty
For executives in particular, gruelling schedules have come under scrutiny lately, with McKinsey & Co. investigating the organisational cost of exhausted leaders.
Following a mammoth survey to define the four characteristics of great leadership, neuroscience can then show how these traits are undermined by tiredness:
- Operating with a strong results orientation – affected by a lower attention span and loss of concentration.
- Solving problems effectively – affected by lower creativity, diminished ability to develop insights and recognise patterns.
- Seeking different perspectives – affected by reduced learning, memory, and decision making capabilities.
- Supporting others – affected by emotional reactions, socioemotional processing, and the ability to develop trusting relationships.
In the bluntest terms, research also shows that when working late into the night you have the same cognitive capabilities as when you’re bordering on drunkenness. Although we’d all agree that if something important needs doing, we probably won’t attempt it after a bottle of wine, it’ll likely be an eye-opener for many people (no pun intended) that doing it at 2:00am sober is neurologically the same challenge.
As McKinsey’s survey of executives point out, the lost ability for accurate judgement caused by sleep deprivation, can in turn lead to a state of denial and claims like “I do not need sleep” or “I’m doing fine with a couple of hours of sleep.”
Would bonuses really help us get the rest we need?
It’s not only top-level managers who can fall into this trap – the technology that enables us to work from anywhere, can make it difficult for anyone to switch off. Also, the four leadership characteristics listed above are really capabilities we would hope all employees can develop. Is then, a policy like Aetna’s the answer?
Some of the commentary on this idea has cried Big Brother, and suggested it’s your boss telling you when it’s bed time. When I first learned of it, I thought of how at the turn of the last century, workers at the nearby Carlsberg brewery (who were housed by the company) were given a curfew on weeknights, and fined if they were late back to their homes twice in the same month. This clearly strikes us as paternalistic today.
But on reflection, this analysis misses the mark. This is a voluntary programme, and for Aetna’s workers – who share data from their personal fitness devices with Aetna’s wellness software to log hours slept – it’s likely that the potential $500 a year is more of a symbolic gesture than a real financial incentive.
In a company of Aetna’s size (almost 50,000 employees), it’s no small task to develop any policy that makes such an impact (a success that’s also confirmed in a productivity study by researchers from Duke University).
The economics that make the policy work are an innovative twist, but making sleep something that’s top of mind – and building a culture that focuses on employee health – is surely the most important point here. In this sense, that’s something we can all take inspiration from.