Aug 24, 2018
The need for sleep: Elon Musk and the perils of working around the clock
Can Elon Musk better serve his company by changing how he works?
Burning the midnight oil at work? Many of us are guilty of it.
But Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk’s admission in a New York Times interview that he works 120 hours a week on little sleep has sparked a debate about workplace culture and how productive senior executives can be under grueling work schedules.
Everyone from Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington to workplace experts have weighed in on Musk’s need to slow down and recharge. But will taking a break make an impact on the fast-paced and pressurized work culture in the corporate world?
Musk has already responded to Huffington’s open letter of advice to get more sleep with an emphatic tweet: “You think this is an option. It is not.”
Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 19, 2018
While founder-driven companies typically have a sense of urgency to succeed, there is a fine line between achieving those goals and fostering an “over-stressed mania,” said Davia Temin, CEO of New York-based management consultancy Temin and Company.
Musk’s work ethic is not unusual when you look at other tech leaders like Apple Inc.’s late co-founder Steve Jobs. But Temin adds that Musk’s “acting out” could be stressing out Tesla’s employees.
“If Musk were a moderate man he would never have accomplished what he has,” Temin said.
Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell, agreed that it might not be helpful for workers to push themselves the way Musk does every day.
“The risk is when he downplays health and sleep as he is a role model,” Howatt said. “For folks within his company, the bar is high and the expectations to perform are great. He appears to be demonstrating that he will work as hard, or harder than anyone – but the pace is not sustainable for the average person.”
While Musk may not be too concerned about how others perceive his professional habits, Mary Ann Baynton, program director for Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, said all company executives should consider how their work ethic may be interpreted by their workers.
“We lose credibility when we suggest that workers should do as we say and not as we do. We all need to walk the talk,” Baynton said.
Luke Vigeant, the co-founder of two Canadian tech startups Tilr and Inkblot Therapy, said his staff do not feel the need to “mimic” his heavy work schedule.
“It is possible that if they [employees] felt I wasn’t working as hard they would not be so committed to moving the company forward, but an informal lunch-room poll suggests that they work evenings and weekends as they like their jobs and care about the quality of their work,” Vigeant said.
The founder of Canadian auto-parts supplier Martinrea International Inc., Rob Wildeboer, agreed that giving meaningful work to employees is key to productivity, but giving them a break also helps.
“People are assets and if you burn them out, then you got to replace them with other folks…That’s not a good culture,” Wildeboer said. “That’s just not a good way to run a business long term.”
Leaders ‘need to grow up’
Experts say Musk’s outbursts have also highlighted the need for the tech sector’s leaders to “grow up.”
“I think the millennial, founder, gig mentality of Silicon Valley founders and others needs to grow up. Too much narcissism and certainty,” said Temin.
However, with millennials wanting more of a work-life balance, more businesses have been moving towards a healthier work environment to attract and retain employees.
Wildeboer said Martinrea encourages employees take holidays off and offers a sabbatical program. “Life is a marathon, not a sprint and sometimes you just got to get away,” he said.
Vigeant adds that Tilr has two beds in the office, but it’s not part of the company’s culture to work until you fall asleep in the ping pong room.
“In the past, I would most definitely enter month-long high-energy borderline manic states where I would not need to sleep more than a few hours a night to feel rested,” Vigeant said. “But with the benefit of hindsight - I’m more focused than I used to be when I was on that low/no sleep-schedule.”