Sleepwalking Through the World

The week before last, I took an overnight flight from Portland back to New York. I worked the day that I flew, and I had to be back at work the day I returned, though fortunately not until about noon. I slept a little on the flight, but not much, which is no fault of the pilot or crew; it’s just not easy to get high-quality rest when you’re sitting upright in a noisy cabin with random lights shining and flaring around you. I tried to nap briefly when I got home, but the cats kept waking me up to demonstrate their amazement at our return.

I got through that workday well enough, though by evening I felt a bit out of sync with the world. I was able to sleep more that night, in my own bed, and didn’t think too much about it until the following week when the VP who oversees our team showed up bright and early from Seattle. I asked him how his flight was, and he grinned a bit manically. “Red-eye. Middle seat. Guy next to me read all night, and never turned off his light.” He shook his head and set about his work.

It occurs to me that despite all the cost-cutting and videoconferencing and other measures that we take to save time and fuel, there is still a lot of business travel going on these days. And as companies pare their travel budgets, it’s the higher-ups — the VIPs, the decision-makers — who are shuttling coast to coast on red-eyes, or spending three of every five weeks on the road. Business class and first class have limited comforts to mitigate the effects of turbulence, unpredictable beeps and pings, and your neighbor’s determination to leave the window shade open. How many key business decisions are being made under conditions of sleep deprivation? What would happen in American business if we made getting a good night’s rest a measure of employee success?

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