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Success with a capital Zzzz: Alum Els Van der Helm changes attitudes to sleep

“Work hard, play hard, and sleep hard”: Els’s mission is to create a healthier, happier, and more effective world by promoting sleep.
Alum and sleep expert Els van der Helm (AMS 13-16) suspects you’re not getting enough sleep.  

In fact, she’s pretty sure you’re not. And as the co-founder and CEO of Shleep, she has made it her mission to change that by helping companies coach their employees to a better night’s sleep.  

A start at McKinsey

Fired by an early interest in sleep – as a teenager, she had read a book by Stanford’s Bill Dement, the ‘godfather’ of sleep research – Els focused on sleep research first at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, then at Harvard Medical School, and finally at Berkeley, where she obtained her Ph.D. 

Looking at her career options after getting her doctorate, McKinsey seemed like it would be a good fit for her, and it was. Her mentor was Nick Van Dam, the Chief Global Learning Officer, who encouraged her to blaze her own non-traditional path at the Firm. “He told me never to ask for permission, but rather for forgiveness,” she laughs. “That really allowed me to ‘create my own McKinsey,’ which ended up being that I was flying all over the world to give sleep workshops.”

Not that it was easy. “McKinsey consultants can be a tough crowd to convince when it comes to a new topic,” Els says. “It was a great space for me to learn how to convince senior leadership of the importance of sleep, and how to go about it.”

The real “game changer” for Els came with a 2016 McKinsey Quarterly article she co-authored – along with Nick – which showed that almost half of nearly 200 business leaders surveyed believed that a lack of sleep had little impact on leadership performance. However, the reality is entirely the opposite: the cost of sleep deprivation to U.S. organizations alone is estimated to be $400 billion a year, a figure which doesn’t even factor in knock-on effects such as lower engagement, less social cohesion, and decreased creativity and innovation.

Changing sleep culture: “show people the science”

“The Quarterly article was a great opportunity to put the topic of sleep directly on the CEO agenda,” Els says. But once there, executives still need to be convinced, and Els’ method for changing sleep culture is very straightforward: show people the science.
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Els leads a presentation on the science of sleep

"The science is very, very clear, and has been for at least 20 years," Els says. There’s simply no getting around the fact that the vast majority of people need seven to nine hours of sleep. If you think you’re an exception to this rule, it’s possible – but you'd be in rarefied company: Els says only about one percent of people can function well on fewer than six hours’ sleep, and that’s purely the result of genetics. No amount of discipline or practice can get you to needing less sleep.

Sleep benefits us in three ways. First, sleep quite literally “cleans” the brain. While we're awake, the brain produces toxic by-products, which are flushed out only during sleep. The risks associated with not getting rid of these by-products include increased chances of developing Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

Second, it improves memory; sleep helps the brain move memories from short- to long-term. 

And third, sleep helps us sustain a more accurate mental model of how the world works, which helps us make better decisions, and have clearer insights. Simply put, she says, “It makes us smarter and better at decision-making.”

Els recognizes that for many people the thought of prioritizing sleep seems difficult, if not impossible, and she is also familiar with the resistance to the very idea of it – even when people are aware of the benefits. 

“People already feel overwhelmed, and then I tell them they need to have fewer hours in the day that they’re awake. They think, ‘that's not going to work,’ instead of realizing they if they prioritize their sleep, everything in their life will be so much easier. But of course, that's difficult to see when you're sleep-deprived and overwhelmed.”
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Els co-founded Shleep to coach people to a better night's rest

Helping companies to better productivity through sleep

Els takes on the challenge of changing priorities by conducting workshops and programs at major companies – including at McKinsey – through the company she co-founded, Shleep. 

“With our corporate programs, we put numbers behind our claims and show companies how much they can save by getting their employees to sleep better. We demonstrate the impact of sleep, and that’s what will ultimately convince senior leaders.”

She’s after nothing less than a shift in culture. “The culture really needs to change so that we think, wow, you’re an idiot if you’re sending an e-mail at 2:00 a.m., because you're basically drunk at that point,” Els says. “When you've been awake for 17 hours, your performance will be similar to someone who has a blood alcohol level of 0.05, which is near the intoxication limit. And once you've been awake for 21 hours, you are way over the limit – you’re basically drunk. That’s not an effective or productive way to work.”

Shleep also offers a personalized sleep app, which uses behavioral coaching to determine users’ sleep needs and develop good sleep habits.

“What you see is that when teams start to work differently, they report not only being happier, but also having a larger impact at work,” Els says. “They’re more effective, and better at getting things done – but there’s also less tunnel vision and more creativity. It’s incredible to see such effects.”

“A leading force”

Where does Els see herself a few years down the line? Doing the same thing, she hopes: “In five years, I hope that Shleep will be a leading force in the global sleep revolution. I plan to be working with many more multinationals, changing their culture and boosting their performance.”

She adds, “What I love about sleep is that it's such a win/win. It can make employers happier and it can make employees happier, and it can make family and loved ones happier because they will be in a better mood at home. It's just obvious all around.”

Years from now, Els hopes that she can look back on her career and see that she contributed to a change in culture around sleep. “I hope I can do that while also proving that you can lead a successful business while also prioritizing sleep and unplugged time off,” she says. “I’m convinced that to make the best decisions, be the best leader, and drive your company forward, all these elements are crucial.”

“Sleep is magical,” she continues. “It does so much for us. The phrase ‘work hard, play hard’ needs to be changed to ‘work hard, play hard, and sleep hard.’”

Related materials

Five Fifty: Success with a capital Zzzz

– If sleep is essential to effective leadership, why do so many executives fail to sleep enough?

The organizational cost of insufficient sleep

– Sleep-awareness programs can produce better leaders.

Related materials

On technology and sleep (2 minutes)

On why you shouldn't hit the 'snooze' button  (2 minutes)

On naps (1.5 minutes)

On social jetlag (1.5 minutes)

Els on the Science of Sleep (TED-style talk, 20 minutes)