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All About You: Sleep and productivity

Richard Hawk speaking

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Thomas Edison believed a full night’s sleep was a sign of laziness and mostly a waste of time. Although Edison was a brilliant, hardworking inventor, on this subject he missed the mark. (He also believed physical exercise was of little value.)

There are still many mysteries about sleep. However, sleep researchers have determined that lack of adequate sleep hurts your performance and mood, and your brain is extremely active during rapid eye movement sleep, which is the stage of sleep when you dream. During that time, you encode memories, clear out useless information and get your brain ready for a new day. So at times, you’re being very productive while you sleep!

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When I discovered this a few years ago, I made important changes to my sleep habits because, like Edison, I had believed sleep was stealing from my productive waking hours and was only giving my body time to rest. That’s not so. For example, research into altercations between American soldiers and civilians in Iraq showed a fivefold increase in altercations among troops who were sleep-deprived compared with those who had slept normally. In part, this research showed that if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to be irritable and impatient.

Possible root cause

In future articles we’ll dig into some ways to stay inspired and energized while awake. But as you and I know from working in the safety field, you’ve got to eliminate root causes of harmful incidents to stop them from happening again. Likewise with negative emotions and moods – inadequate sleep may be the biggest root cause. If so, you need to eliminate it. For me, that means sleeping about 60 to 90 minutes more than I used to.

Sure – getting the right amount of sleep can be difficult because of work and family responsibilities. But understanding that sleep will improve nearly every aspect of your life can help inspire you to make it a higher priority. Here are two books I recommend that may give you that inspiration:

  • “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep,” by David K. Randall. The book doesn’t include many tips on getting a good night’s sleep but does, as the author promises, take you on a sleep adventure in which you gain wonderful insight about this mysterious and vital activity.
  • “The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep,” by Lawrence Epstein and Steven Mardon. This book explains what science knows about sleep and its importance, but also includes chapters with practical advice on how to get the quality sleep you need.

Make your sleep even more productive

Here’s a tactic that many renowned scientists, artists, architects and athletes – past and present – have used to help solve problems and come up with creative ideas. I know it works for me.

Let’s say you’re looking for a fun way to start an upcoming safety meeting. First, write it down (i.e., “How can I start my ‘proper lifting’ meeting with a bang?”). Next, read and think about what you wrote right before you fall asleep. As you sleep – particularly during your REM sleep sessions – your brain will work on the question without inhibition. Be sure to have something handy to take notes with, because after you wake up or later the next day you’re likely to get a “voilà” moment and think of an awesome opening for your meeting – one that even might have impressed Thomas Edison!

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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