“Please Boss, Don’t Track My Sleep!”

Are you an adult? Can you brush your teeth without being reminded, or leave the house wearing a full complement of shoes? If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you could soon be entitled to a bonus from your forward-thinking employer.

Let me rewind a bit. Last week I was listening to an episode of Tim Ferriss’ podcast called The Random Show, a free-flowing bro-down in which Tim and his friend Kevin Rose chat about their latest passions. Kevin enthusiastically described an enlightened new practice in Silicon Valley: a founder who was financially rewarding his employees for getting a full night’s sleep.

Tim & Kevin reflecting (literally). Image courtesy fourhourworkweek.com

Kevin didn’t name the startup in question, but a U.S. insurance company called Aetna has been making headlines for implementing the same idea. Aetna’s CEO, Mark Bertolini, recently declared that his employees could receive up to $500 a year extra if they hit the company’s sleep goals, as measured by a FitBit band. “Being present in the workplace and making better decisions has a lot to do with our business fundamentals”, he noted, proving that a well-rested executive can be as mundane as an exhausted one. It is surely supposed to be a win-win initiative: any extra expenditure by the employer in bonuses is outweighed by productivity gains. What’s more, the bosses think they are sending a caring message to their stressed-out staff: ‘Hey guys! There’s more to life than checking your emails at night. Switch off, rest up, and kick ass in the morning!’

The invasion of privacy here is almost too obvious to mention, so let’s start with the most glaring flaw in this logic. In the Bertolini/Rose worldview the individual can be incentivised to sleep more and perform better — this is economics 101 in action. But if well-slept workers are more productive, wouldn’t it be easier and more appropriate to give them bonuses for the improvements in their work? Going through the rigmarole of requiring staff to wear electronic tags in order to reward “being present” and “better decisions” seems spectacularly inefficient.

The scheme misses the mark in more pernicious ways too. First, if you think your company culture is wearing out your workers then the solution is probably not adding another level of accountability. Even worse, they’re encroaching onto the one time that most people would regard as off-limits for any half-human boss: the middle of the night. And badly thought out wellness schemes can be counterproductive. Josh Cohen, a British psychoanalyst, covered this in an article on burnout in The Economist’s new publication 1843:

Some companies have sought to alleviate the strain by offering sessions in mindfulness. But the problem with scheduling meditation as part of that working day is that it becomes yet another task at which you can succeed or fail. Those who can’t clear out their mind need to try harder — and the very exercises intended to ease anxiety can end up exacerbating it.

Even if a pay-to-sleep scheme doesn’t just add extra stress, it will probably increase inequality. Look around an office and see who looks most tired. My bet is it’s not a bunch of party animals. It’s the support staff with long commutes because they can’t afford to live close to the office. Parents of young children. Carers of elderly relatives. You know, people who sleep less because they are already at a disadvantage. Denying them a bonus regardless of the quality of their work doesn’t look like a winning innovation to me.

“Must…get…that…bonus…” — a commuter goes the extra mile for her 40 winks

But I’m not sure that this is really about improving quality of life or performance. It’s about fashion. Back in the bad old 1980s and 1990s sleep was a sign of weakness. When Margaret Thatcher claimed she needed just four hours a night it was seen as evidence of her superhuman powers. No one dared question whether she was “present”. But now shut eye is back in vogue. Arianna Huffington somehow knocked out a book between naps called The Sleep Revolution, described as “a sweeping, scientifically rigorous, and deeply personal exploration” of the subject by none other than Arianna herself. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook championed The Sleep Revolution by saying that “sometimes we need to sleep in to lean in!” (cunningly promoting her own book in the process). From Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to Ellen Degeneres, celebrities are queueing up to boast about their ‘sleep hygiene’ (ugh). Just as the ‘ideal’ female body type is ever more unattainable, so we are told today that not only should we be entrepreneurial, nutritionally-optimised, mindful athletes, but we need to do it all with an eight-hour stretch in bed squeezed in to our schedules.

Bertolini and co are also operating under the assumption that you can accurately track your sleep with a gadget. Ever tried it? The results are patchy at best. Fitbit, the leader in the field, is facing a law suit claiming that their devices overestimate sleep by more than an hour compared to polysomnography, a scientifically-accepted but rather less practical technique. Whether the suit has merit or not, it is pretty obvious that an accelerometer (the movement tracker in your phone and Fitbit-like devices) can only roughly estimate how long you sleep for, and claims that it can distinguish between REM and non-REM phases should be treated with extreme caution. If you wouldn’t hire someone based on an encouraging horoscope, don’t pay them according to their sleep data.

Credit: College of DuPage

There are some questionable politics at play here too, from my perspective at least. In the same podcast, Tim Ferris was upset that the government might want to check his plans to build a sauna in his garden, and went on to describe himself as a libertarian, a small government guy. Meanwhile the idea that private companies could invade every minute of their workers’ day was applauded. Here’s a quiz: 90% of the world’s slaves are exploited by a) governments or b) private companies and individuals? I hope you didn’t say ‘a’. There’s a lot to like about Tim Ferriss’ work, but I think he sometimes assumes his own benign motives match those of a more complicated world at large.

So let’s leave it like this: if you are going to create arbitrary, unfair, badly designed and possibly counter-productive workplace schemes, you should go the whole hog and make them comically evil too. I would recommend the tech evangelists look at a bulk purchase of the Pavlok — a wristband that delivers an electric shock to its wearer when they step out of line. It’s designed to help people quit bad habits such as smoking, but why not set it to zap your employees when they try to squeeze in one more episode of Game of Thrones before bed? You could make a fortune.


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