How much does sleep cost?

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Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘sleep is for wimps’. Sadly, that’s not good advice, but also, it seems, it is exceedingly bad for the economy. Even though we spend around a third of our lives asleep, society it seems, has been mis-sold the value of a full night’s sleep.

RAND Europe, a Cambridge based not-for-profit policy research organisation undertook a study into the impact of sleep on the world’s economies. Marco Hafner, a senior economist says: “Our study shows that the effects from a lack of sleep are massive. Sleep deprivation not only influences an individual’s health and wellbeing but has a significant impact on a nation’s economy, with lower productivity levels and higher mortality risk among workers.” RAND found that employees who sleep less than 6 hours per night report on average about a 2.4% productivity loss due to not being at work or employees being at work but working at a sub-optimal level, compared to workers sleeping between seven to nine hours per day. (RAND, 2016). Scale that up to the UK’s workforce and it equates to a cost of $50bn each year.

Evidence also shows sleep suppression is a predictor of ‘all-cause’ mortality, including fatal car accidents, cardiovascular disease, strokes and even cancer. A recent study by the Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that, compared to drivers who had slept for at least 7 hours in the past 24 hours, drivers who reported they had slept less than 4 hours had 11.5 times the crash rate. 

Based on empirical evidence, the number of individuals receiving less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep is increasing. This is due to several lifestyle influences connected with a modern 24/7 society, such as psychosocial stress, unbalanced diet, lack of physical activity and phone, tablet, and computer use, among others.  (Roenneberg, 2013)

So how can we address this challenge?

According to sleep scientists there are simple measures we can take, the most important thing you can do is to self-impose a rigid sleep and wake up time each day, even at weekends. It seems there is no such thing as catching up on sleep, in fact, it only serves to aggravate the problem. Having a lie-in cranks your natural body clock (circadian rhythm) forward in time so when Monday rolls around and you must wake up early, it’s like having 3 hours or so of jet lag. Not the best way to start the week!

Two things to avoid in the evenings are caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours, so a post-lunchtime coffee would be equivalent to drinking a 1/3 of a cup of coffee right before bed. Conversely, alcohol can be a powerful sedative but is also one of the most influential suppressors of REM sleep, arguably the most important stage of sleep.
Health education often does not teach the importance of sleep. Every parent knows from experience that sleep is of fundamental importance to their child’s development and can dramatically affect the child’s ability to learn new skills.

It is also important for employers to recognise the importance of sleep and tiredness. Creating brighter workspaces, having outside eating areas and encouraging staff to take lunchtime walks all help to promote the natural melatonin hormones which regulate the sleep/wake cycles.

One such company that has embraced a positive sleep culture is Google. Google has implemented a flexible working arrangement with employees so they can match their hours to their circadian rhythm and have installed ‘sleep pods’ in their facilities to encourage naps, thereby germinating creativity and productivity, and reducing health problems and sick leave. It is also reported that the insurance giant Aetna pays a $300 a year bonus to staff that get at least seven hours of sleep per night recorded and verified using a sleep tracker such as a FitBit.

A big challenge is shift work. Many industries that have to provide essential 24/7 services need this capability and worryingly the World Health Organisation has listed night shift work as a ‘probable carcinogen’. Clearly more work is needed to develop strategies to protect those who have to work at night.

In a second blog, coming out next month we will be looking at how the emerging sleep tech industry, estimated to be worth over $30bn a year in the US, is addressing these challenges. Do they fulfil our unmet needs or are they creating more unnecessary gadgets?

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Adam Turner

Consultant Mechanical Engineer