- Recent New York Times interviews with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates revealed that few of them sleep the recommended amount.
- This could have serious consequences for their health and leadership abilities.
- It also sets a bad example for the rest of the country.
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In a recent New York Times story, several prominent Democrats running for president spoke of how little they sleep. As one might expect, many were a bit noncommittal in their answers, saying variations of "it depends," or taking the Jay Inslee route of spouting a campaign line rather than answering the question.
But the general tone was that the overwhelming majority of them wished they slept more. The clear subtext was that most of them acknowledged that they would be happier with more sleep, but that they were just too busy to get as much sleep as they desired.
For example, Marianne Williamson said, "I want to get eight, but I rarely do." And Eric Swalwell said, "I would kill if I could just get four and a half."
We think this is a telling conversation, and it highlights some important issues about sleep. Given our collective expertise on sleep science and effective management, the Democratic candidates’ admission about their sleep habits raises a few red flags that could have serious consequences for their health, candidacy, and the country at large.
Lack of sleep can hurt the candidates’ health
Sleep that is adequate in quality and duration is obviously crucial for alertness, and it’s unlikely that anyone would dispute that their performance is subpar after pulling an all-nighter. But the deficits that result from even mild sleep loss are often underappreciated.
After 17 hours of sustained wakefulness, performance on certain tests is equivalent to that of someone with a blood-alcohol content of .05%, and sleep restriction to six hours a night produces cognitive impairment that matches the deficits seen after two nights of total sleep deprivation.
Of particular concern is that those who are chronically sleep-deprived often lose a sense of sleepiness and therefore don’t recognize their own deficits under these circumstances.
Sleep loss not only increases the likelihood that our future leader will have lapses in judgment, but it could result in negative consequences for their general health. The recommendation that adults get at least seven hours of sleep is based on ample evidence linking sleep deprivation to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, pain, and increased risk of death.
Political chances at risk
From a leadership perspective, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation undermines leadership and other work outcomes.
Most directly relevant to success as an effective politician is charisma. Sleep deprivation undermines the ability of leaders to control their emotions, especially their ability to experience and display positive emotions (such as hope and excitement). As a result, their charisma suffers.
Beyond inspiring voters, successful politicians must effectively lead their staff. Dysfunctional working relationships with staff can undermine all the work that goes on off-camera by so many hardworking people behind the scenes. Here again, charisma is important. But poor sleep also increases the prevalence of abusive supervision — like jerky-boss behavior — which in turn lowers the work engagement of subordinates.
In other words, a candidate who is short on sleep will be more likely to be short with staff, and those staff members will tend to invest less of themselves into the job as a result. Indeed, even over longer periods than a single night, sleep deprivation undermines the quality of the working relationships between leaders and subordinates.
Additionally, political candidates seeking office are often derailed by the scariest word in politics: scandal. An important research finding, which has been replicated in multiple studies, is that sleep deprivation increases the prevalence of unethical behavior.
Sleep deprivation leads to decrements in self-control, which leaves people less able to resist temptations to behave unethically. As a result, even the same person can be more or less unethical on different days, based in part on how much and how well that person slept the night before.
Setting a good example for America
From a bigger-picture perspective, we should all be able to look to politicians as people who lead us to a better future. New research indicates that leaders who explicitly devalue sleep end up undermining the sleep of those they lead (which unintentionally leads to an increased prevalence of unethical behavior in the people they lead).
So politicians who attempt to communicate how dedicated they are to the job are also communicating a deprioritization of sleep, which is harmful to their followers as well as those who might be harmed by an increase of unethical behavior by those followers.
The bottom line is that our future president isn’t the only one affected by the health consequences of their own sleep habits. Condoning sleep restriction could increase sleep-loss-related errors, accidents, and illnesses in the American people.
This is particularly relevant given a growing recognition of sleep disparities in vulnerable populations such as underrepresented minority groups and socioeconomically disadvantaged. Glamorizing short sleep times could propagate a serious public health problem.
Political leaders have a responsibility to be effective leaders and role models for everyone else. Getting the sleep they need is key to doing this well.
Christopher M. Barnes is an associate professor of management in the Foster School of Business of the University of Washington. His doctorate, in organizational behavior, is from Michigan State University. His research examines human sustainability in the work context, focusing on the relationship between sleep and work.
Cathy Goldstein, MD, is an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan and a faculty member at the Sleep Disorders Center. Her research focus, through work with mathematics, is the improvement of sleep tracking through algorithm development and validation using consumer sensors.
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