Steve Reese of the Phoenix Suns: Sleep Deprivation is Making Us Less Happy, Heavier and Costing Employers Millions in Lost Productivity

Last week at the Constellation Connected Enterprise Event I filled in for my friend and CRM Playaz partner Paul Greenberg. I moderated a panel on the business side of sports, featuring:

  • Daniel Brusilovsky – Director of Consumer Products and Technology for the Golden State Warriors
  • Jerry Drobny – VP of Strategic Revenue Services for the San Francisco Giants
  • Jason Lumsden – Director of IT Strategy for the Boston Red Sox
  • Steve Reese – CIO of the Phoenix Suns
  • Ricky Volante – Cofounder and CEO of the Historical Basketball League

Each panelists touched on a different aspect of the business of sports. They all proved really interesting. And all lifted the veil a little bit on the what happens with the franchise off the field.  If you want to check out the panel, you can watch it here.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation

Steve Reese serves as CIO of the Phoenix Suns. He discussed an intriguing subject. He talked about how a conversation with the team trainer led to a sleep study. That study not only impacted the players. But it affected all the employees in the organization. This included him.  So I huddled up with Steve for a deeper discussion. We talked about how more sleep changed his life personally. Then we discussed how it changed the organization overall.

Check out below an edited transcript of our conversation.  Listen to the full conversation. Watch the video or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

Looking for an Answer

Steve Reese: About two and a half years ago our head athletic trainer at the time, a guy named Aaron Nelson, came up to me. And said he wanted to see what technology was available to fix both sleep and fat. We’d had some players arrive to training camp a little overweight. Wanted to see if there were devices available that would help us to lose fat in a very fast period of time. Let me tell you. There’s no shortcuts except the right way. We’ll just cut to the chase on that, but-

Small Business Trends:  I could use that.

Steve Reese: Yeah… but on the safe side. What we discovered is that there really is a lot of connection between sleep and fat. So at the time Aaron and I were talking about this, we struck a deal. And that was that whatever we do for the players, I also wanted to include with the staff.

One of the things that I’ve seen not only within sports itself but also within corporate America is that we get so busy serving everybody else. That we really forget to take time for ourselves. And it’s much like a parent in that you’ve got the kids and you’re very busy. But once in a while mom and dad need to get out. And just have date night or sleep in and do whatever.

Digging into the Data

So prior to that, Aaron agreed that whatever testing was done, whatever studies we did would include myself initially. And then as we dug into the data, we began to find out that we really wanted to include a good portion of our front office staff. Really interesting things we discovered. Kind of during our research. And that is if you’re looking at just sleep metrics on their own. 50% of all Americans are sleep deprived. And that’s less than seven hours of sleep. And I, and if I’m not mistaken. Back in 1942 the average amount of sleep the Americans slept was about eight hours, a little bit over that.

Small Business Trends: Eight hours?

Steve Reese: Today the average amount of sleep is six hours or less. And so what we’re finding is that we really have a sleep issue that we need to deal with. And so if it were just sleep and being a little bit happier, we could probably get by with that. But what we’re discovering is that there is a lot of ramifications when it comes to productivity.

The average person who’s sleep deprived will lose seven days of productivity a year out of the office. People with obstructive sleep apnea, and this is a whole different topic that we can get into in our discovery and that, will cost their company close to $3500 a year in additional medical benefits. And 30% of the US population has moderate to severe sleep apnea.

Not Enough Sleep

So with all those things, we began to kind of look down the road and the number that struck me the hardest was the fact that when you are six hours or less, and that’s really the number we focused on because our initial sleep bootcamp that we set up as part of the Phoenix Suns front office, what we do is we ask for volunteers, anybody who wants to be part of sleep bootcamp can come in. What we had is out of by our original 21 participants, one had slept five and a half hours on average a night.

Small Business Trends: Wow.

Steve Reese: The previous three months, everybody else was less than that. They’re were under five hours. Just as incredible is that when you are sleeping less than six hours a night, and then that was the number we wanted to focus on as one of the hazards of that. What we’re finding is that your emotional center, your amygdala is 60% more reactive. So Steve Reese, you give him, you know, sleeping less than six hours and I was on average before I began my rehab, so to speak.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Emotion

I was at about five hours, four and a half hours a night. I was 60% more emotional. But then also your prefrontal cortex, another part of the brain that allows you to apply the brakes and stop for being a meme sort of idiot, is 70% less reactive. So there’s really this dual effect that you have that you’re more reactive and your ability to stop yourself from being mean is more difficult. And so to me, this really kind of became a mission first for dealing with health.

Then it became a mission to deal with culture and performance and I felt like the performance of say injury statistics and all sorts of other stuff is about the same for players what it is for the front office. We just have different application. So what we wanted to do was to give all of us in the front office a benefit of a doubt and say, hey, we very much care for your health and your wellbeing and let’s just see if there’s a way that we can move that needle from maybe being a six hour a night’s sleep or to say six and a half. You know, it’s better than nothing. So we began down that trail.

Looking at the End Results

Small Business Trends: So what were the end results?

Steve Reese: What we discovered is we basically rated everybody, this is all subjective. We rated everybody based on happiness, their productivity, their ability to focus. And we had a dramatic increase from everybody who just said, okay, I now feel as if I have the tools and when I’m laying in bed, I can be laying in bed … Matt Walker who’s a wonderful sleep scientist who I’ve got to give tons of credit to. He has a book called Why We Sleep. And he works up here at UC Berkeley. He runs their sleep scientist study.

And so for us it ended up being that everybody who was there just felt like their happiness went up. They were a little bit more under control. But when you change behavior like sleep and there’s such a stigma against it, a bias against it, it takes a long time to change that. I know my sleep habits took a good two years to get fully in line.

Trying to Get Control Over Life

We run the 90, 120 day bootcamp, but it will probably take those participants a good year, year and a half just to get back into proper hygiene. But we wanted to at least give them the proper tools to kick off and to be able to manage that. And honestly you have a part of their lives, it was totally out of control. and give them the ability to have it in control.

And that’s very empowering when you can say, I’m laying in bed and I have a sleep opportunity of eight hours that I may be in the bed, but I’m only sleeping four. So it’d be able to increase that. And that’s really what Matt Walker pushes a lot, is having the ability to be in the sack, be in bed. Now, how do I utilize that time the best? And that’s probably what we try to train through a myriad of tools that we pass out, probably 15, 20 tools that we do and we pass out in the beginning of the bootcamp and give everybody the strategies they need.

Small Business Trends: How long was it before you felt that you felt the changes starting?

Steve Reese: Yeah, I would say with me it was a good 30 days. I had two issues. One issue was is my inability to fall asleep. So that, and that was an easy one for me to correct. The other was my waking up in the middle of the night four, three o’clock and being stressed. And so, and we’re pretty well running into those same two big issues going on.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Weight Loss

I increased pretty quickly to about six and a half hours. And then it just took me a little bit to jump over that seven hour number. But I would say within 90 days I began to feel really, really good. Within nine months I felt like I was really on track. I ended up losing over the first nine months, close to 25 pounds of weight, three and a half inches on my waistband. So if you go undergo this and you start losing weight, don’t worry, you’re going to have to throw your clothes away and start over. That may not be a good thing.

Small Business Trends: For that reason it is a good thing.

Steve Reese: So you’ve got to have a good tailor on your ride. I ended up losing close to 60% body fat.

Small Business Trends: That’s amazing.

Steve Reese: Now I’m not carrying a lot of weight to begin with, but to be able to have that just organically fall off, and so part of it was the fact that you’ve got these chemicals in your body when it’s called ghrelin. One’s called leptin. Ghrelin tells you I’m hungry. Leptin says I’m full. And so when you’re sleeping properly what happens is you end up with a higher quantity of leptin, which in your brain says, I’m full and less ghrelin.

How Sleep Affects Diet

And so what happened is my sleep began to take over. I began to really have my taste buds kind of change, so to speak; I no longer wanted to eat potato chips, which I love and I could eat them all day, but I go to lunch and I honestly, I just kind of feel like steamed broccoli as part of the meal.

So it was a dual effect in that not only did they get more sleep and I had less ghrelin, more leptin, but then I seemed to just eat better naturally. It wasn’t something that I consciously thought of. And then with that I had more energy so I worked out harder. So when I combined all three of those things, that ended up being 25 pounds, and I had people who started noticing a little bit before me. And so with that, it was great.

Small Business Trends: They were like, what’s going on here? What are you doing?

Steve Reese: And so that began to capture other people’s attention saying what the heck are you doing? Aaron Nelson and I, we have been through close to 25, 30 products and things that we tried to figure out, can we sleep? I tried, I was hypnotized. That was interesting. I was sensory deprivation tank, cranial electrical stimulation, just all sorts of stuff. Some things fell by the wayside. Some things had kind of stood out when we were all finished with it. But it was wonderful that the majority of the things we did were very low cost and they were just adjustments.

Start with a Desire to Improve

So what I would say is that there’s not necessarily a technique or any kind of magic bullet. The biggest thing is just your desire to say, okay, I’m going to fix this. What do I do right? And then look at yourself as a lab rat and figure out how am I going to go ahead and just figure out what works and doesn’t work. And so for everybody it’s going to be a little bit different.

Small Business Trends: Right.

Steve Reese: But for me, what I ended up doing is when I, usually there’s no caffeine afternoon. Caffeine when you drink it has a half life of five hours. So if I drink it at noon, it’s going to peak at five o’clock and then that went off until about 10. So I figured that after noon, okay, that’s it. No more caffeine. Simple, no cost thing.

Small Business Trends: Right.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on your Life

Steve Reese: If you’re sleep deprived, that’s a tough one because you’re going to have to fight through for a little bit. Then what I did is also end up getting a pair of blue light filtering glasses.

So now I have more energy. Go work out after work when I get home. I popped the blue light filtering glasses on and that does a lot to assist with melatonin production because then instead of the blue light being in the eyes and it halting the melatonin production, like for instance, your iPad can delay your melatonin production by close to 90 minutes.

And so with all that being said, so these were just very, very simple things. And then just being consistent with when I go to bed and with when I wake up. And those types of things and those types of things ended up being the big key to what we did. So it was a wonderful journey.

Tackling Issues Leading to Sleep Deprivation

The second issue was with waking up early at four o’clock. So what I began to do to deal with that is that there, I started going to CES and going to all the mental health seminars, trying to look at what were the things that were done for PTSD, mental health, what are some things if we’re calming down somebody with PTSD, maybe it’ll calm me down.

Small Business Trends: Right.

Steve Reese: And so I ran into a company called NuCalm, N-U-C-A-L-M. And what NuCalm had was a cranial electrical stimulation device or a CES device that what they do is you put that on and you combine it with binaural beats and a little bit of cream on the neck that kind of reduces your adrenaline, the amount of adrenaline you have.

And I would then do that at four in the morning. I wake up, I’d put the NuCalm on and then I would go back to bed and then it would settle me down. And that allowed me to continue to not waste those two hours that I needed. So that’s how I, and that was like a dramatic jump from the five hours, five and a half hours, and then that pushed me over the top to seven, seven and a half hours.

Optimizing Professional Talent

Small Business Trends: You said something during the panel that a lot of when it comes to sports franchises, they spend a lot of resources trying to optimize the actual professional talent.

Steve Reese: Right.

Small Business Trends: But you thought it was just as important in this regard to help the actual folks on the business side of it.

Steve Reese: Right, right.

Small Business Trends: Why did you, why was it so important to do that when it seems like the industry focuses purely on the talent when it comes to this stuff?

Steve Reese: Well, I would look at it in two ways. First off, I’ve looked at a number of teams that are very successful and let’s just take it when I was with the Tennessee Titans, good example. We made it to Super Bowl 34 back in Atlanta, your home town.

Small Business Trends: Yeah, I remember that.

Steve Reese: Super Bowl 34.

Small Business Trends: How is this?

Steve Reese: Yeah, exactly. There’s a story behind that I’ll tell you later. And what happened so during that year I ended up implementing a video editing system that saved our team a whole bunch of time. And so what happened is not only did it end up making our coaches happier, it also made our staff happier.

Improved Efficiency is Part of the Equation

So in talking to Greg Williams, who was our defensive coordinator at the time, one of the statements he made was, which really had just stuck with me through the years, is when I had the end of the year assessment on what did we do that was good, bad, and ugly. And he said, “Man, you just saved me so much time on the video editing system. I had more time to go home and sleep. That made me a better father, made me a better coach, helped me to relate to the players better.”

And so with that, I kind of felt like when you look at front offices that are very unified, sometimes if they’re just a little bit better, it could be that half percent, that one percent better, where the players just feel that love, they get that service a little bit better. And that gives them just a little bit more motivation for being on the court.

So I feel that is a group of folks that are supporting the players, if we’re restored better, you hope to give that off to the players and the rest of the staff. But there’s also some really hard cost to this. And so one of the things we do with our sleep bootcamp is we do a sleep apnea testing right from the beginning, and that’s part of it.

Looking at the Nationwide Numbers

So 30% of the US population has moderate to severe sleep apnea. And so what we do is that there’s a app called Drowzle. It’s from a company called Resonea. It’s a startup in Scottsdale, Arizona. What we do is we sleep apnea test everybody over the course of three nights for the part of our test.

And then what happens, this app listens to them, it gets passed off to a chief medical officer at Drowzle and then they will come back and say, “Hey, we’ve got an issue with what’s going on. You’ve got some sleep apnea.” So if somebody has sleep apnea, that’s really the place to begin because you can do all the sleep stuff you want, but if they have sleep apnea, that’s a showstopper right there. So that’s where we stop.

So sleep apnea, when you look at it will cost the average employer for a person who has it $3500 a year. So if 30% of the population has it kind of just run the numbers, but that ends up being, if you take sleep apnea for all of the NBA front offices, that’s about a $14 million problem.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Costs

So my question would be is from employer standpoint, take an Exxon or a Shell or whoever, some huge company, and you take that number and say, if we simply treated sleep apnea, would we be better served by then reducing our costs of medical care because we’ve now addressed that and it seems counterintuitive, but it really does work that way.

And so my hope really is, is that not only in sports entertainment, but just in general, that people really look at the cost of, if you’re grinding your employees into the ground, you think you’re becoming more productive. But in some respects, maybe you’re not because they’re less cooperative. Their times of exhaustion documented is 30%.

Adding to Overall Performance

So you end up reaching fatigue 30% sooner. So if you’re in a course of an eight hour day, 10 hour day. You’re probably gassing out by two. You’re probably gassed out when you come in the morning. So these are all things that not only apply to players on the court. But also to us in the front office. And those, every little bit adds toward player performance.

Small Business Trends: Right.

Steve Reese: So high performance really translates in my own personal opinion in the player performance as well.


This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

One Reaction
  1. Yes. Sleep is essential to productivity as well. So it is important to have a steady sleeping pattern.