Sleepless, with a million thoughts

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Self-generated anxiety may be the root of many work-life problems in Singapore

What is a good time to wake up in the morning?

That's a question I've been asking myself for a few weeks now. For me, the year started off at a frenetic pace and, under the weight of looming deadlines and a backlog of work that seems to grow each week, my sleep cycles have also shifted.

I fall asleep easily enough at bedtime, but find myself waking up in the early hours of the morning.

A million thoughts rush in - about things that I have to do today or what I have forgotten to do the day before - and I can't get back to sleep.

Sometimes, I toss and turn as I wait for the morning light to filter through the windows. Other times, I get out of bed and go to the computer to wander aimlessly around on the Internet.

Occasionally, I become disturbed enough by my behaviour to do a Google search on what it means to wake up at a particular hour. And what I have found is that one little hour can make a big difference.

Five o'clock is actually a good time to wake up, going by the deluge of online articles that you get about boosting productivity, feeling happier and "becoming more centred".

That's the answer, for example, to a recent story in The Guardian newspaper that asks "What time do top CEOs wake up?" In it, AOL's current CEO Tim Armstrong says he leaps out of bed at 5am because "life is too exciting to sleep".

Meanwhile, Forbes magazine's "5 Things Super Successful People Do Before 8 AM" lists yoga and morning jogs, a hearty breakfast and mental mapping of the day ahead as some of the things that top achievers give themselves time to do before the workday starts.

In short, waking up at five speaks of a disciplined mind, a healthy body and a conditioned soul.

Waking up one hour earlier, at 4am, is a somewhat different pro-position.

Half the articles returned on a Google search are cries for help from people who say they suffer from stress, or from others giving tips on ways to overcome this. I even found myself, wide awake at 4am one day, doing an online test to check if I was clinically depressed.

"My mind races with unbelievable anxieties reminding me of failures, everything I should worry and be sad about," says one writer on Reddit. "It's almost like being yelled at."

There is a physiological explanation to why stress or anxiety can wake someone up at 4am or even 3am.

Apparently, this is the time of night when the liver and other vital organs regenerate. To do so, they require glycogen but this is in short supply because stressed-out people produce too much adrenaline, which causes cells in the body to use up glycogen.

Finding itself short of glycogen supplies, the body produces more adrenalin, which causes you to jolt awake.

This is why people say that sleep deprivation begets further sleep deprivation.

And it's a phenomenon that can also be explained psychologically. People worry about not getting enough sleep, becoming angry with themselves at night, worsening a cycle of what becomes a more and more dangerous cumulative sleep debt.

Describing my problem to friends and business contacts, I have found that I am not alone. In fact, I've been struck by how common a problem this is with the typical corporate executive in Singapore.

Almost all gave me a knowing look, saying this is part and parcel of working here.

One of them told me she often wakes up in the middle of the night wanting to send e-mail, but feels too embarrassed to do so because the time stamp would startle colleagues. So she dictates notes to herself on her phone, in order not to forget what she has to do in the day ahead.

Another catches up on her weekly diet of downloaded television serials at 4am. She wakes up but it is too early to rouse the rest of the family for school or work, so she opens up her laptop and watches a couple of episodes.

I'm also seeing more work e-mail flying around before 6am. Some are sent by me and I am no longer shocked when I get an immediate response.

These days, there is a lot of talk about the quality of life in Singapore. People wonder whether companies are doing enough to ensure their employees have a healthy work-life balance.

Much of this talk has centred on issues such as implementing flexible work schedules and better protecting the after-work hours that are meant for family and friends. But I suspect the problem goes much deeper than that.

Last year, The Straits Times partnered Employer Alliance to conduct a national survey on work-life harmony. One of the surprising findings was that employees here, by and large, feel that their companies do have flexible work arrangements in place. Supervisors are generous in granting time off when needed, and accommodating of special family circumstances.

Most also felt that their supervisors did not expect them to take work home or field work-related calls or e-mail on weekends.

Many surveyed, however, were worried about the impact this flexibility had on their perceived performance or career trajectory. In other words, yes I can work from home or only part of the week, but will I still get the important assignments? No, I'm not expected to answer an e-mail on Sunday, but if I don't, does that say something about me?

Self-generated anxiety is, to me, the root of work-life problems in Singapore. I'm pretty sure now that it accounts for why Singapore is the third most sleep-deprived city in the world behind Seoul and Tokyo, according to a study of 45 global cities by fitness wristband maker Jawbone last year.

How can we reduce this sort of anxiety?

That's a question that in our achievement-oriented society goes far beyond the realms of simple changes to HR policy and government intervention.

The recent call made during the Budget debate - for Singaporeans to learn for competence, not grades - is a start, but as that famous poem by Robert Frost goes, there are miles to go before I sleep.

ignatius@sph.com.sg