Complex Made Simple

Elon Musk and the case of the sleep-deprived CEO

It can be easy to discount the mental and physical stress of an executive’s office job. How straining could it be to shuffle papers and press some keys all day, right? It’s not like businessmen and women are performing manual labor in the scorching Gulf sun.

Contrary to popular belief, however, work in the office comes with its own set of hazards. The life of a CEO is not just about yacht cruises and limo rides, as we often see in the movies.

Now, one infamous CEO has been making the news as a result of his lack of sleep.

Exhibit A: Tesla’s overworked CEO

Elon Musk, the 47-year-old CEO of billion-dollar corporation Tesla is in the news due to his reported sleep deprivation, and how it’s affecting his performance at the company.

Musk told the New York Times that he often works 120-hour weeks, and doesn’t leave the Tesla factory for days at a time. In fact, his longest and most recent ‘time off’ was when took seven days off from work 17 years ago in 2001, when he was sick with malaria.

He even missed his birthday in June, spending his time at the factory. He almost missed his own brother’s wedding even.

These reveals have caused concern for investors and board members, who worry Musk might not be up to the task of handling the company. His occasional Twitter sessions are quickly descended upon by the public and media to be scrutinized, like when he berated one of the Thai cave rescuers last month.

In fact, according to US media, most of Musk’s controversial tweets are posted late in the evening, when he is struggling to sleep. Studies show that staying awake for more than 16 hours equates to being under the influence, which would explain Musk’s spontaneous and irritable tweets.

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The scientific risks of sleep deprivation

Believe it or not, sleep deprivation counts as a carcinogen.

“After just one night of four to five hours of sleep, there is a 70% reduction in critical anticancer-fighting immune cells called natural killer cells,” Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California writes for Business Insider. “And that’s the reason that we know that short sleep duration predicts your risk for developing numerous forms of cancer.”

He also notes that a lack of sleep also leads to higher blood pressure, as well as making it difficult for the brain to make new memories. Heart disease is also linked to this.

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What is at stake for his business?

According to a Rand Corporation study in 2016, sleep deprivation costs the US economy up to $411 billion and the equivalent of 1.23 million working days a year, with costs equating to 2.28% of the country’s GDP, Forbes reports.

In the UK, sleep-deprived employees cost the country $50 billion and 600,000 working days.

When you look at the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, and consider what’s at stake if his or her judgment and decision-making abilities were to falter, it is clear why investors would have cause for concern. After all, Musk runs a $63.8 billion company in Tesla, according to a figure by the Guardian.

Musk has been known to be cranky and impulsive at times, such as when he called an analyst’s questions “boring” and “boneheaded” during a Tesla earnings call in May. An impulsive CEO is dangerous to his own stakeholders: Following Musk’s comments to the analyst, Tesla share price dropped 6%, the Financial Times reported.

“We do worry that such theatrics will unnecessarily undermine investor confidence in Tesla’s outlook,” said Toni Sacconaghi, the Bernstein analyst who Musk interrupted.

Musk has been averse to hiring a high-ranking executive to help him in the day-to-day management of his company.

“If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know,” he said in his interview with the New York Times. “They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

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