At the Advertising Research Foundation’s Audience Measurement Conference two weeks ago, media maven Arianna Huffington delivered a keynote that did not so much concern research or audience measurement. She instead spoke on a topic just as complicated, if not more -- sleep deprivation.
Huffington, a self-proclaimed sleep evangelist, stated that while businesses may operate 24/7, no one individual can do so. “Being tired has become the new normal,” Huffington noted.
Truth be told, Huffington gave a very similar speech when she delivered my sister’s high school commencement address several years ago (suggesting that from age 18 on, lack of sleep is a common area of interest ... so live it up now, you preteen night owls).
Huffington was far more resonant this time around. Not only because I am more tired now than I was back when my sister graduated but because I have gained more insight into the working world.
We “glamorize lack of sleep,” explained Huffington. This is a point duly noted in many a conversation with my young working cohorts. It seems that whenever discussing our jobs, the one with the most hours worked wins. “I was at the office until 9 last night,” remarks one friend. Another chimes in, “I was there until 11.” “I got out at 8 but went in at 6 this morning and am working Saturday.” And we have a winner!
Is this a game I want to play? Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, just keep working as long as you are physically capable. I think Huffington is right – when competing in this way we are sacrificing productivity, creativity and effectiveness.
No doubt a good employee is dedicated to doing the best job possible but business expectations are higher than ever before. A friend of mine in marketing expressed that she feels constantly on-call as a result of a recent promotion and relocation to New York. Huffington advocated that we need to move from being “necessary” to becoming “indispensable.”
So does that indispensability apply to all hours of the day? How different it must have been to be part of a working world without e-mail, cell phones and Wi-Fi. We are constantly connected to work, making those few precious hours of sleep the only time when we are truly off-line.
There are of course those moments when we do find ourselves off the grid and we are met with both freedom and anxiety. Earlier this summer, in the far reaches of Long Island’s east end, I recognized my limited cell service made me inaccessible by email. I was a little panicky about this (as I am about most things, truthfully). In the event that I was needed on e-mail between Friday and Sunday, how could I communicate my unreachability? Cue the smoke signal.
Before we bemoan the sad fate of sleepless nights and a business world with no off-switch, let’s turn our attention back to Arianna Huffington who has one of the best solutions yet.
At the Audience Measurement conference, Huffington unveiled a new opt-in e-mail deletion policy for Huffington Post employees. If they choose, they can set up their e-mail so that when out of office, the automatic reply delivered to senders reads something like this: “Jane Smith is on vacation this week. The e-mail you sent her will be automatically deleted. Please resend when she is back next week.” Accompanied with the appropriate contacts for urgent requests, of course.
Note that Huffington credits German automaker Daimler AG for this innovation (props to them!). This revolutionary e-mail policy validates an employee’s right to be out of office -- not in the figurative sense of the meaningless acronym “OOO,” but truly “out of office” as in not responsive.
To cite just one more personal anecdote -- last May, just as we were marking our one-year anniversary in the real world, my two college friends and I vacationed in Miami. Of our group, I was the only one without a work phone. My friends, both in PR, toted matching blackberries.
Yet we all faced the same existential crisis. Do we a) check our work e-mail remotely on our vacation, which could lead to resultant stress and anxiety or b) check our e-mail when we return to work, when the sheer breadth of unread e-mails could lead to resultant stress and anxiety? We went with option A. Of course, there is something to be said for our genuine interest and curiosity in what was going on in the office when we were not there.
And so as we enter the dog days of summer, let us reflect on the luxury of sleep and our right to be unreachable. It is exciting that Arianna Huffington has made it one of her purposes to preach to the choir on this issue. Now if we can just find the solution to “calling it a day” and actually meaning it.
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