Asleep at the switch

By Lyndsie Bourgon April - May 2013

Surviving on little sleep isn’t something to brag about. It could wreck your health and derail your career.

Asleep at the switch Illustration credit: Paul Eekhoff

About 10 years ago, Taylor McCaffrey LLP in Winnipeg decided to do something for its sleep-deprived staff: It opened a nap room.

Nobody used it.

The firm eventually gave up on the idea, says the firm’s managing partner, Patricia Lane, and put extra couches in the staff room instead for employees who needed some down time.

Andy Clark, a former lawyer who writes a blog called the Wellness Lawyer, isn’t surprised that no one took advantage of this uncommon workplace perk: “My sense would be that lawyers would be kind of afraid to use [a nap room], in case people think, ‘Oh, there he is napping again,’” he said in an interview.

Getting lawyers to take the health hazards of sleep deprivation seriously is a tough sell in a profession where working long, hard hours and pulling the occasional all-nighter is a badge of honour and no one wants to admit they’re suffering from a lack of shut-eye – never mind sleeping on the job.

Beyond the abyss
The tipping point

“I think that most lawyers I know would not identify lack of sleep as a problem in their lives, even though it probably is,” says Cheryl Canning, a partner at Burchells LLP in Halifax, and a board member of the Nova Scotia Lawyers Assistance Program.

A recent U.S. study on sleep habits found lawyers are among the top sleep-deprived occupations, second only to home health-care workers, with lawyers reporting  just over seven hours of sleep per night. The  results were met with astonishment online by lawyers who wondered what lazy members of the profession were managing to get seven full hours of sleep every night.

As Clark points out: “The unhealthy view is that lawyers don’t make money when they sleep. You make money when you’re on the clock and working on client matters. But that’s a very, very short-term view… because sleep deprivation leads to poor client outcomes.”

Chronic sleep deprivation also contributes to serious health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease, according to a 2011 report from the World Association of Sleep Medicine. In fact, sleep plays such an integral part of our well-being that any disruption ultimately affects every part of our life — including our effectiveness on the job.

The importance of sleep to good working habits is well-documented. In a study examining the links between sleep and academic success, Dr. Reut Gruber, a McGill University sleep researcher, discovered that sleep has beneficial effects on learning, memory, attention span and even helps regulate emotions in high-stress situations. Likewise, lack of sleep has adverse effects on personal performance and attention given to tasks. In cases of extreme sleep deprivation — when a person has gone for close to 20 hours without rest — their level of impairment is close to that of someone who is over the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.

Gruber lists off the cognitive functions that lawyers need to employ to function at their peak: “Emotional regulation, attentiveness, attention to detail, the ability to act fast and accurately…” All of these processes, she says, are influenced greatly by sleep — in fact, sleep plays a key role in actually retaining the information we cram into our heads during an all-nighter. Without it, “…a lawyer can prepare well, but if that person is sleep-deprived, their ability to actually perform well is going to be affected.”

"If the health consequences can’t convince lawyers to address their need for a good night’s sleep, perhaps the impact on the bottom line can."

And there’s a difference between quality of sleep and quantity of sleep; some people lay awake in bed for eight hours each night, while others can function at a rested capacity on just  five or six hours of sleep. Disturbed sleep can be just as bad as insomnia; research on the impact of waking during the night found workers who experienced poor quality sleep (not simply insufficient sleep) were more likely to doze off at work and make errors. In the same study, those who admitted to waking up consistently throughout the night also said they struggled with lack of motivation and energy at work, as well as impairments in social interactions.

The solution, experts say, is to encourage individuals to figure out how much sleep they need to work at their peak the next day. But first, the individual has to admit they have a problem getting enough rest.

If the health consequences can’t convince lawyers to address their need for a good night’s sleep, perhaps the impact on the bottom line can. In 2011, Harvard scientists found that sleep deprivation costs companies up to $63.2-billion in lost productivity each year. Much of that loss is due to “presenteeism” — when an employee is physically present, but working at substandard levels. This has prompted some large organizations to invest in “sleep hygiene” courses and encourage management to ensure that employees are properly rested.

Clark says this is an idea that firms should consider: “A well-rested lawyer that invests time in sleep and exercise and eating right, that’s time and energy and resources that are invested that pay huge dividends over the long term,” he says.

And in a profession where sleeping on the job isn’t an option even when there’s a nap room, it only makes sense.

Go to sleep

  • Hit the hay at the same time each night and wake up at the same time every day. It leads to better sleep in between.
  • Turn off all electronics about 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep.
  • Don’t have a clock in the bedroom. If you wake up during the night, it only leads to sleep stress.
  • Consider lifestyle changes: spending less time commuting equals more time sleeping or more time working effectively from home; working a compressed four-day work week also helps.
  • If you’re still having trouble, check into products like light boxes that help regulate melatonin levels, which help control your natural sleep rhythm.
  • Talk about it. Steps should be taken to normalize discussion about sleep in the same way lawyers now speak about depression openly, says Cheryl Canning of Halifax.

Facts about sleep

  • The average adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
  • The longer a person goes without sleep, the more likely their brain is to take a “micro-sleep”—meaning they shut down for rest, even if it’s for just a few seconds.
  • Our biological rhythm means we’re constantly working against the desire to sleep when it’s dark and work when it’s light. If we work into the night under harsh light, our sleep suffers.
  • Power naps of about 10-20 minutes work best during the day. Anything longer and your body slips into a sleep cycle, leaving you groggier than before.


Read our upcoming June 2013 issue for a full report on the Legal Profession Assistance Conference’s Survey of Lawyers on Wellness Issues.

Lyndsie Bourgon is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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glen marko 5/15/2013 5:03:23 PM

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