Forget hustle culture. Small business owners need sleep to succeed, experts say.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Once upon a time, that saying was meant to encourage people to live their life to the fullest. Now, it’s often used to glorify hustle culture and the pressures of the “rise-and-grind” mantra that comes along with it. However, with over a quarter (27%) of SME owners scraping by on just five hours of sleep a night1, there are growing calls to resist the hard hustle as it only leads to big burnouts.

So what is the true cost of lack of sleep on your business? PayPal tapped into our global community of sleep merchants and wellness experts to understand the importance of sleep and to get advice for entrepreneurs and others dreaming of better rest.

The pandemic effect

In recent years sleep became deprioritised and the pandemic exacerbated the issue, with four in five small and medium-sized business owners in the UK saying their mental health has been negatively impacted by COVID-19, with 63% reporting disrupted sleep2.

Acupuncturist and wellness expert, Ross J Barr, explains why the pandemic had such an impact on sleep:  

Acupuncturist and wellness expert, Ross J. Barr
Acupuncturist and wellness expert, Ross J. Barr

“People were trying to figure out scenarios that were uncharted before and that caused a lot of adrenaline spikes. The constant news updates became addictive, and we ended up spending so much more time on our phones and social media feeds, which on their own cause an increase in adrenaline. And package that with adrenaline that stems from the uncertainty of it all – what’s going to happen next, when will we be back to normal, am I going to be able to keep my job and have a career left? This bundle of adrenaline makes it very difficult to shut down.

“If you think back to our ancestry, adrenaline was a short spike to help us evade danger from predators. We were never really intended to run on that for too long, but even before the pandemic people running on it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.

“To make matters worse, when we’re running off adrenaline, we sleep very close to consciousness – we need to be ready for the next lion. So you sleep lightly, have vivid dreams and wake up like you haven’t slept at all. Then you’re in a vicious cycle of running off adrenaline again, rather than rest.  

The power of sleeping on it

A global study looked at the impact of the lack of sleep on working days, finding that lack of sleep results in around 207,000 working days of lost time in the UK. With eight in ten (79%) British small business owners saying they are regularly losing sleep3, Ross explains the impact this can have on small business owners and their business.

“Sleep is one of the most powerful tools we have to aid our success. Physiologically, when you don’t have enough sleep, you’re running off reserve power that’s powered by adrenaline. As Adrenaline is designed for us to evade danger, part of this is risk assessment – figuring out where the next lion is going to be. For a business owner in modern life, this constant risk analysis can lead to over-catastrophising and then decision paralysis because you’re always second guessing yourself. You need to be a good, calm state to make the best decisions for your business without spending hours overanalysing it, and a good night’s sleep helps you do that.”

So how can you set yourself up for sleep success? Ross shares his top tips for a great night’s sleep:

  • Eat three meals a day – our bodies are ruled by a circadian rhythm and our food intake is a key signal for our bodies to help it ‘keep time’ throughout the day, so consistent mealtimes are vital.
  • Avoid too much coffee – you want to be running off your own energy, not caffeine, throughout the day.
  • Go to bed when you start to feel tired, but don’t exhaust yourself. Many people make the mistake of thinking that they need to exhaust themselves to sleep better, but in fact it does the opposite as exhaustion causes a spike in our sleep-enemy, adrenaline.
  • Read a book – reading before sleep is worth hundreds of pounds of sleep therapy. Preferably a physical one and nothing that is too stimulating, some light fiction is perfect.
  • Don’t worry about getting the perfect sleep – you’ll just end up not sleeping because you’re anxious about not sleeping!

Ann Crady Weiss, CEO and co-founder of Hatch, a sleep product company in Redwood City, California, agree with Ross’ final tip. With so many sleep trackers on the market, Weiss says it’s easy to become obsessed with sleep, which perpetuates anxiety and guilt when perfect proves elusive. Hatch instead shifts the focus to realistically evolving a person’s sleep habits, not perfecting them.

Changing sleep culture

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on UnSplash
Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on UnSplash

Reversing the sleep deprivation trend will require changing sleep culture and reigniting the importance of rest. Ross is a big advocate of the humble nap, he explains: “What people don’t realise is that a nap during the day where you shut down just even for 15 minutes and calm your endocrine system, will actually lend itself better to sleeping better at night,” Ross said. “There’s nothing better than a 15- to 20-minute nap if you want to be efficient and productive. You achieve a lot more when you’re not running on adrenaline but actual rest.”

Kitty Shum, who founded Toronto-based company Loti Wellness, said increasing self-care is important to shifting the culture, too. “In this fast-paced world there are so many things that we need to do, that we don’t tend to nurture the things we want to do.” Kitty said “Personal wellness can take a back seat when external demands on your time and energy cause you to lose focus on what’s important physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said.

And for small business owners who are also juggling parenthood, the demands can quickly pile on. “There were definitely times when we were stretched at work while dealing with babies not sleeping,” shared Cassandra Cannon, co-founder of sleepwear retailer Lake Pajamas. “I remember feeling like I was in a fog and couldn’t think clearly at work because I was so tired.”

Learning to value the health of our minds and bodies

Ross also advocates learning to value the health of our minds as much as we do our bodies. “At the Ross J. Barr clinic, patients are treated based on what’s going on in their minds as well as their bodies. That’s exactly how small business owners should be approaching their own mindset when it comes to prioritising rest and relaxation,” Ross said. “Being successful is not about working harder or doing more on the ground. For me, it’s not even about earning the most money,” said Barr.

“Success to me is maintaining a level of peace and health and balance. If you don't look after yourself, you become incapable of helping other people, which is so important not only in my job, but my personal life too.”

Balancing wellness and business

For business owners, finding time for wellness—including adequate sleep—can be particularly challenging when on the hook for the fate of an operation that can feel like a 24/7 job.

Anne Lattimore, who also co-founded Lake Pajamas, recommended changing tasks when stress sets in, if possible. “I get re-energised when I accomplish even small tasks and mark something off the to-do list, and it often helps when I re-tackle more difficult things with fresh eyes.”

Mark Zhang from Manta Sleep suggests that business owners look for opportunities to simplify, automate, delegate, and hire to reduce the burdens that come with entrepreneurship – leaving more room for personal wellness. He also encourages companies to adopt a “pro-nap” culture.

Hatch’s Ann advised other business owners to “put on your own mask first before helping others. You can’t fill from an empty cup.” She believes demonstrating self-care is key to showing up as a leader for teams and customers. “I want my employees to feel like they have the space to rest in their lives, as I know the impact that sleep has on overall health and day-to-day life. To do that, I must lead by example.”

For more resources for small business owners, including tips and advice drawn from the global network of small business owners that PayPal works with, visit our Business Resource Center.

Ross J. Barr's range of natural supplements
Ross J. Barr's range of natural supplements

Ross J. Barr is a fertility and women's health expert and registered acupuncturist.

A member of the British Acupuncture Council and graduate of the renowned College of Integrated Chinese Medicine, Ross J. Barr (BSc Hons, MBAcC), has, over the past decade earned a reputation as one of the foremost practitioners in his field.

Ross J. Barr’s range of natural supplements with remedies to promote healing and calmness are available to purchase online.


1 Research by Simply Business (2021)

2 Research by Mental Health UK (2021)

3 Research by Money Advice Trust (2021)

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