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Eight hours sleep? You’re dreaming.

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A new book considers the cost to democracy, not to mention the human experience, when we fail to sleep.

Former Canberra Press Gallery journalist Fleur Anderson is not a great sleeper.

While she was consumed by the 24/7 news cycle as a political reporter for the Australian Financial Review she lay awake at night and worried about a lot of stuff.

Would she remember what to ask the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop when she was broadcast live across the nation during an episode of Insiders? What if she missed the show altogether because she slept through her alarm?

The anxiety would mount and Fleur would toss, turn, fret, meditate, surf the net and perhaps fall asleep a few hours before dawn – having to start her day after a few scant hours of REM, feeling punch-drunk and deeply unhappy with the world. Moreover, she was increasingly perturbed. If she wasn’t sleeping from the pressure of the job, what were the nation’s politicians doing to ensure freshness and mental acuity in which to lead the country?

When Fleur left Parliament last year for a more work/life balanced career in strategic communications, she decided to tackle the issue head-on.

She interrogated current and former political leaders about their own battles with sleep and the consequences of living in a chronically over-tired society. And then she wrote a book On Sleep.

At its heart is a wider question about what is happening to a society which no longer “switches off” during the conventional late night and early morning hours. How do we conquer the culture of busyness and our collective willingness to sacrifice of sleep hygiene for binge-watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram?

“Although I’d always been fascinated by politicians and high-fliers who were seemingly able to get by with little sleep, it seemed an odd topic to broach as a political journalist. But after leaving the daily political grind, I was surprised how willing these people were to talk to me about their sleep and even more surprised how often they’d tell the truth.”

“For some, sleep does not come easily for months or years. For others, insomnia is accompanied by disappointment, anxiety and even exhilaration. Others recounted to me those times when a rare few hours of uninterrupted introspection strengthened their resolve to do things differently: those times when a sleepless night changed history.”

In the book Kevin Rudd responds to reports he slept only three hours a night during his prime ministership and that in fact he “aims” to get six to eight hours a night and a “light-hearted” remark by his wife was blown out of proportion.

John Howard reveals the nights leading up to Australia’s involvement in overseas conflicts in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq gave him the most sleepless periods of his prime ministership. And the seemingly indefatigable Julie Bishop reveals the only time sleeplessness and exhaustion defeated her. In the aftermath of the bombing of MH17, Bishop contracted pneumonia in London but no one in Australia was aware the foreign minister had been laid low.

Meanwhile, Former Greens leader Bob Brown favours an overhaul of the sitting hours of federal parliament to five days a week in normal business hours to attract a greater diversity of politicians – including women – and to encourage politicians to put a greater priority on sleep.

Fleur argues it may be in the nation’s interests.

“Parliament is the most visible and exaggerated example of how our society is changing. It illustrates the blurring of our daytime work hours into night, the impact of technology on the 24/7 media cycle, and the slow twisting and shaping of our biological sleep patterns to fit our modern lives… We need our elected representatives to remain connected to our everyday rhythms—of waking in the pale dawn to gently prod our children awake, the morning commute, a late-night work email check, or the start of the late shift on a second job.”

The wider implications are serious. Fleur warns that with almost 40 per cent of us estimated to be getting inadequate sleep, Australia is now a society of the chronically tired, and our elected representatives are reflecting us in all our exhausted, cantankerous glory.

Studies show lack of sleep impairs decision-making, cognitive performance, identifying risk, and understanding questions of ethics.

“Then the next big thing, according to futurists, is that we’ll start thinking about curing the ‘disease’ of sleep. ‘Transhumanism’ is the idea the human race will evolve beyond our current biological and mental limitations.”

Perhaps we need to start focusing on eight hours of rest before we resign ourselves to permanent exhaustion.

Does Fleur sleep any better as a result of writing the book?

“I would like to say that as a result of writing On Sleep I now sleep perfectly, having found the secret to curing insomnia. Ha! I’m just as bad as ever. I wake up at one or two, too hot or too cold. I snore. I check my phone. I read my Kindle. I lie in bed wondering if my children have given me nits. Sometimes if I’m lucky, I’ll get that last hour of sleep before dawn that keeps me going for the day.”

On Sleep is published Melbourne University Publishing and can be purchased from all good bookshops, or ordered online.

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