The elite boast of little sleep, but it’s those at the bottom who really suffer

The elite boast of little sleep, but it’s those at the bottom who really suffer

Sleep proves how inequality touches even our most intimate lives – just ask those who toil for low pay with inadequate rest

Studies show that people at the bottom of society have among the least amount of sleep. 

Aditya Chakrabortty

The Guardian, Monday 6 May 2013 21.25 BST

For Bob Iger, boss of Disney, the day begins at 4.30am. “I exercise … I look at email. I surf the web. I watch a little TV, all at the same time. I call it my quiet time, but I’m already multi-tasking.” Attaboy, Bob! Mind you, no early bird gets near a worm if Brett Yormark, chief executive of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, has his way. Brett’s up by 3.30am and in the office within an hour, from where he bombards flunkies with apparently “motivational emails”. Weekends are down time, so he only clocks in at 7am.

Some executives seize the day so firmly they might as well not bother with a kip at all. Take Dan Akerson, head of General Motors: he’s up before dawn to phone subordinates in Asia, but has confessed to Associated Press that even sleeptime is plagued by the question, “Why is the stock not doing better?” Still, his schedule means such dark nights of the soul are at least ultra-short.“Lunch is for wimps,” claimed Gordon Gekko 25 years ago. But that fine aphorist of late capitalism missed an efficiency saving. Now it’s sleepthat’s for wimps*. As the interviews quoted above show, business tycoons can barely greet a journalist without boasting about how early they rise and how much they pack in.

“Life is too exciting to sleep,” the CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong, told the Guardian last month. What pre-dawn enticements could he possibly mean? “Historically, I would start sending emails when I got up. But not everyone is on my time schedule.” Tim’s now a reformed, tranquil character. “I have tried to wait until 7am.” He might once have seemed a bit of only-in-corporate-America exotica, but what was striking about that article was how British and European executives now seek to ape those early-to-rise habits: a fund manager up at 5am, an ad exec working out by 5.45.

The image Armstrong and his kind are seeking to project with such remarks is easy to read: look how productive I am. Employees, shareholders and pension-fund investors are meant to gaze in awe upon these treadmill-pounding, conference-calling, BlackBerry-monitoring titans of the corporate world. What inspiration! What value for money! Iger must be worth every penny of the total $40m (£25.7m) awarded him by Disney last year; never mind that it’s 719 times what the median American household earned in the same year. GM may only have been kept afloat by the US government, but Akerson puts in enough hours to earn his $11.1m (£7.1m) pay package: a mere 198 times the average American household income.

Far be it for me to claim these people aren’t toiling away. In previous periods of massive inequality, such as the 1920s, those at the top generally lived on inherited wealth or interest. One of the outstanding features of the new plutocracy is that they are working rich: corporate bosses, talented traders, hedge-funders. In George Osborne’s dichotomy of strivers versus skivers, they fall on the government-approved side.

But no matter how dedicated or gifted, Bob Iger is certainly not doing the work of 719 American households. Nor is the average FTSE-100 chief exec on £4.7m a year (according to detailed research by the thinktank One Society published in September 2011) really working harder than 219 British workers – even if we take into account massive talent, diligence and responsibility. Such massive handouts are far less to do with actual input and far more to do with sweetheart deals doled out by remuneration committees and nodded through by apathetic fund managers.

Sure, it suits the right-wing propagandists to bang on about how busy the elite are. Indeed, one trope of this economic crisis is that the victims – be they Greek pensioners or British welfare claimants – are lazy or, as Osborne puts it, have “the curtains drawn all day”. But it’s a lie: studies show that people at the bottom of society have among the least amount of sleep – and the most disturbed. According to analysis conducted by Stella Chatzitheochari at the Institute of Education, 18% of men in routine jobs such as cleaning and waiting get less than 6.5 hours’ sleep – against 13% of their professional counterparts or 15.9% of managers. And that, she points out, is before you take into account commuting times or shift work, both of which affect disproportionately those in the worst and most insecure jobs. Look at sleep for however a brief period and you see how inequality touches even our most intimate lives.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a cleaner at Buckingham Palace. Anthony, as we called him, had to make a three-hour round trip to get to work from his one-room bedsit, because he couldn’t afford rents any closer in. He did two jobs and relied on public transport and the result was three hours’ sleep a night. By Friday night he was so exhausted, he would crawl into bed fully clothed and sleep until the next evening. Anthony’s housing estate was full of people like him, he said: the cleaners, the cafe staff, the office security guards. And they were all doing the same sort of hours.

It didn’t sound particularly heroic to me. But then Anthony hadn’t chosen this lifestyle and he wasn’t boasting; if anything, he seemed slightly ashamed. And Anthony and his neighbours don’t get profiled in the papers.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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