Elon Musk’s tweet about taking Tesla private two weeks ago ignited a firestorm around his health and the exacting nature of his job. “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” he admitted in a candid interview with the New York Times. Musk described the extreme working conditions under which he has been working and the toll it has taken on his personal life. He spent three or four consecutive days working on the factory floor, never leaving the site or going outside. He worked through a recent birthday well past midnight, without seeing friends or family. And he almost missed his brother’s wedding, where he was slated to be the best man.
On the one hand, Musk’s extraordinary work ethic has paid off. Tesla recently reported having hit its Model 3 production targets. On the other hand, questions remain about whether past success will be sustainable in the long run. According to Musk, while the operational difficulties Tesla encountered have been largely fixed, he doesn’t foresee an end to the personal toll he will have to continue to endure. “[F]rom a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”
Amid the news, Arianna Huffington, the sleep spokesperson, came out with a public letter admonishing Musk’s sleep habits. She implored Musk to look at the science. Sleep is vital to performance, she explained. A well-intentioned message, but is the solution that simple? Musk replied via Twitter: “Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.”
And frankly, I agree. More sleep might be a sound solution in theory, but I’ve never seen it offered in practice. Never in my working life have I ever heard a manager suggest a team get more sleep when there is more work to be done. For anyone who has been in the position to work consecutive 100-hour weeks, when you’re in the thick of it, there really is no other option. When work mounts, sleep is one of the easiest things to circumvent.
No one is debating the hefty toll this takes on our health. But the way work has evolved in the latter 20th and 21st century has made it impossible for us to disconnect. If we could, we would. But with increased interconnectedness both locally and globally, work now follows us around. What’s more, total hours are often rewarded instead of productivity per hour. The standard is signing on after work. The standard is working late into the night to get something done. The standard is putting in several hours on a Sunday. In fact, if you suggest you aren’t willing to do these things, a company will easily question whether you’re committed to the job. (I know, I’ve tried.)