ON THE face of it business executives and Formula One drivers have nothing in common, other than the fact that they do their jobs sitting down. Racing drivers hurtle round a track, touching speeds of 350km an hour. Office-bound managers may occasionally wheel their chairs from one side of their desks to the other. Drivers risk a high-speed pile-up if they lose concentration. Executives merely risk spilling coffee on a Hermès tie.
Yet one of the motor-racing world’s gurus now spends much of his time talking to chief executives. Aki Hintsa, a Finnish surgeon, was chief medical officer for the McLaren F1 team for 11 years. His clients have included two former world champions, Sebastian Vettel and Mika Hakkinen, as well as Lewis Hamilton, the current holder. Dr Hintsa’s relationship with the business world started informally when a CEO friend turned to him in despair, complaining of burnout. His business, Hintsa Performance, employs 30 people, applying his methods from discreet offices in Geneva and Helsinki. It earns more than 80% of its revenues from working with management teams and individual bosses.
Can business people really learn from Formula One? Dr Hintsa argues that the two worlds have more in common than you might think. Drivers sit atop a pyramid of 500-700 employees, from engineers to marketing departments, whose livelihoods depend on them. Surrounded by sycophants, drivers can easily lose control of their egos. They live horribly peripatetic lives—races are run in every corner of the world. Dr Hintsa says that his grand-prix experience forced him to focus on two problems that also plague executives always on the move.
The first is lack of sleep. A growing body of evidence shows that shortage of shut-eye cripples individuals and poisons organisations. One study shows that staying awake for 20 hours has the same impact on the performance of various cognitive tasks as a blood-alcohol level of 0.1%, well over the limit for driving a car in most countries. Another study shows that being deprived of sleep leads people to adopt a more negative attitude or tone of voice. Employees are also more likely to report disengagement from work if a bad night’s sleep makes their bosses grouchy.
Yet sleep deprivation is commonplace in the business world—and is sometimes worn as a badge of honour. A recent survey of 196 business leaders by McKinsey, a management consultancy, revealed that 66% were dissatisfied with the quantity of sleep they got and 55% were dissatisfied with the quality. Too many companies are run by people who are dazed by a lack of sleep.
The second problem shared by those in the driving seat, whether of a racing car or a multinational firm, is constant travelling. Life on the road not only makes sleep harder to manage by cutting the amount of resting time available and confusing the body clock. It has other debilitating effects. Spending long periods in pressurised airline cabins dehydrates the body and messes up circulation. Time in airports and hotels encourages overeating. Airports specialise in junk food; airlines serve over-salted and over-flavoured meals to compensate for the fact that flying dulls the taste buds. Deals are done over extravagant dinners washed down with too much wine by businessmen who then find themselves raiding the minibar at odd times of the night.
Dr Hintsa provides detailed instructions about how to overcome these difficulties. Bringing healthy snacks when travelling reduces the likelihood that frazzled bosses will delve into the minibar. Dimming the lights gradually in the evening prepares the mind for sleep. Switching off screens two hours before bed saves bombarding the brain with blue light, which tells it to stay awake. Reading a book is better than goggling at a device.
His advice for coping with jet lag is complicated. His clients receive detailed charts that tell them on what side of the plane to sit and when to wear sunglasses after landing (when travelling east it is wise to wear shades on arrival to minimise exposure to daylight). The main thing is to decide whether to adapt the environment to your body, or your body to the environment. On a short trip, he advises sticking as closely as possible to a normal schedule and adjust meetings and bedtime accordingly. On longer jaunts, start adjusting to the new time zone a week in advance. And pay attention to light: bright lights send the brain instructions to wake up and dimmer lights tell it to close down.
Sleeping your way to success
Dr Hintsa is riding a wave of interest in how to improve the personal performance of executives. Hintsa Performance has a number of direct competitors such as Tignum, based in Phoenix, Arizona. Big management consultancies have started paying attention to the subject of shut-eye: the latest edition of the McKinsey Quarterly contains an article on how “sleep-awareness programmes can produce better leaders”. Caroline Webb, a former McKinsey consultant, has written a book, “How to Have a Good Day”, that suggests ways of using recent findings from economics and behavioural science to improve working life. Google has established a trend for providing workers with sleep pods, nap rooms and healthy snacks. The Boston Consulting Group has experimented with a “time off” policy: employees spend an evening every week without e-mail or their smartphone, in order to catch up on sleep. Some airlines and hotels are using “smart lighting” to help customers adjust to new time zones.
There are good strategic reasons for this. Companies recognise that, in a world where you can buy so much computer power off the shelf, their competitive advantage lies in the quality of their employees. But the main reason for the interest in firms like Dr Hintsa’s is individual angst rather than a corporate master plan. From the CEO down, people are so hassled by the pace of business life that they are turning to anyone who can help them get their lives under control and their batteries recharged. Everyone could do with the occasional pit-stop.