With the staggeringly fast advancement of technology in modern years, our society has started changing. We function differently in subtle ways – our values are different, our social environment is wildly different from that of 40 years ago, and our awareness about our health has changed. The latter change isn’t always positive. Our sleep schedules have suffered as a consequence of increased work shifts and stress levels, and the accessibility of many distractions that take away from our sleeping time. In order to both make good money and engage with their hobbies, a majority of people have sacrificed valuable resting time. The time we spend in front of TV screens, computers and smartphones increases each year, and this habit directly hurts our ability to get proper rest, with all its restorative benefits.
Because of this sacrifice, the health of the general population keeps dropping, as our immune systems get weaker due to sleep deprivation. This drop in health affects our performance at work, our social lives, mood and so much more. The performance drop at work has a wider influence than someone would initially believe – and it causes harm to the overall economy of the country. This article aims to show how sleep deprivation can negatively influence the economic well-being of any given country and contribute to problems on a societal level. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Sleep Deprivation and Work Performance
The constant exposure to artificial light from a number of sources has been a massive contributing factor to the decline of our sleeping time over the past 100 years or so. Couple that with how demanding our jobs are becoming, and it should come as no surprise that the number of short sleepers (meaning people who get 6 or fewer hours of sleep per night on average) has increased by as much as 22 percent in the United States, between 1975-2006. Additionally, there is an increasing trend of people taking their work home – while this occupies around five hours per week for the average worker, a fifth of the working population clocks in an extra ten hours each week. To put this into perspective, this “homework” basically adds up to the same amount of time as their annual leave.
Studies show that each hour spent doing market work at home (market work meaning taking your job home in this context) reduces total sleep time by 10 minutes, and the overall time spent awake doing other things by 50 minutes. It has a bigger effect on your sleeping schedule than you might think. If a person is forced (or feels pressured) to work overtime at home, the amount of sleep they will sacrifice to engage in leisure activities after finishing their workload is hard to quantify but noticeable and unhealthy. This problem seems to affect women more than men, oddly enough (as normally women sleep more than men on average). As it turns out, taking our work home and spending a larger part of our day working may not be making us more productive at all. The opposite is closer to the truth.
The Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and Productivity
Despite working for longer than we ever have, our level of relative productivity doesn’t rise. In fact, we’re getting worse. Sleep deprivation affects our minds and bodies in a way that makes us way less capable of handling most tasks. Our mood takes a plunge, and we become irritable, aggressive and prone to risk-taking. We become less responsive to our surroundings and less perceptive in general. Our ability to process and interpret information is crippled because we don’t spend enough time in sleep stages that are responsible for our mental sharpness (primarily the REM stage). As a result, despite working for longer, we accomplish less with that time than a well-rested person would.
According to this study, companies lose around $2300 per year for each sleep-deprived worker. Scale that up to a national level, and we have losses as high as $411 billion per year in the US, or 2.28% of our GDP. Japan doesn’t lag far behind, as they and the United States have the most sleep-deprived workers, which, in Japan’s case, throws $138 billion into the fire each year. Australia loses around 1% of its GDP annually to sleep deprivation. If all these workers added just one or two hours to their sleeping routine, the amount of money saved would be staggering. In the United States, 45% of workers get less sleep than they should be, with 18% getting less than 6 hours (which puts their levels of cognitive sharpness and general performance almost as far down as people who haven’t slept for 24 full hours). In Japan, it’s even more extreme – while the percentage of workers operating on less than 6 hours is less than in the US at 16%, the total percentage of sleep-deprived workers is a whopping 56%, according to data from 2013.
On top of all this, we can add illnesses and sick days. The less you sleep, the weaker your immune system gets. Short sleepers are almost three times as likely to catch a common cold – so imagine all the other, usually more severe health conditions that could cripple a person’s ability to work productively (or at all). Not only that, but the effects of fatigue make them way more prone to causing accidents at work, which can result in property damage, further injuries, and overall lost money for both themselves and their company.
Additionally, the higher up you go on the career ladder, the worse it gets. Statistics show that workers in influential and high-pay job positions get even less sleep on average and are affected more by fatigue. There are many potential reasons for these claims, but let’s look at the most sensible and important ones:
- More influential jobs carry a bigger responsibility. Naturally, that responsibility directly translates to a lot of stress for the person in question. Because stress is a major (if not the single most prominent) contributing factor to insomnia and other sleeping problems, it’s not surprising that CEOs and Presidents often sleep for less than 6 hours per night.
- Management positions are often more mentally demanding, as the person is forced to work with many connected variables and solve often vague and complex problems, on top of constantly communicating with colleagues or clients. Fatigue significantly weakens our cognitive sharpness and perception, making these jobs incredibly hard to perform to a professional standard.
- The stress associated with these jobs doesn’t subside once they leave the office. Managers are often more prone to taking their work home, which damages their daily routine. As a result of all the exhaustion, they’re more likely to resort to stimulants such as coffee or chocolate, which can single-handedly hurt their sleeping schedule and health even further.
Sleep Deprivation and Public Safety
Since around a third of the US population sleeps for less than 6 hours per night, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have declared sleep deprivation a public health issue. The terrifying thing about sleep deprivation is that it doesn’t only affect the sleep-deprived person, but everyone else in their environment. We’ve already covered the plethora of risks associated with drowsy driving (these risks cause around 8,000 deaths each year in the US), where a sleepy person on the road is as prone to causing accidents as someone with an excessive amount of alcohol in their blood – but the risks don’t stop there.
Medical staff often get sleep-deprived due to the grueling nature of their shifts and simply how demanding their jobs are. Hospital interns that work overnight shifts are especially susceptible to this problem, as they’re 60 percent more likely to injure themselves using a scalpel or needle. The level of sleep deprivation they deal with makes them almost three times as likely to participate in a car crash, and their near-miss involvement is almost five times higher than average. Overall, hospital workers that have to cover overnight shifts have double the amount of attention failures, and as a result, they commit around 30 percent more errors. Because the lapses in their judgment and focus can cause serious negative effects on their patients’ health, it’s safe to say that not only the workers have to deal with medical problems as a result of sleep deprivation. Every unfortunate accident contributes to the ever-growing medical expense cost, further harming the economy and the people who support it.
What Can Be Done About Sleep Deprivation?
There’s a light at the end of this tunnel. There are many methods that can significantly improve the sleeping time of the working population, and some of those methods can be conducted by employers and managers to help their subordinates. We will separate our advice into three categories, based on who can implement it. Fighting sleep deprivation and helping the economy is not something that can be done on an individual scale – everyone has to participate. For example:
Advice For Working Individuals
- Keep track of how much time you spend sleeping. Sleep tracking methods range from manually written journals and simple devices to advanced apps. If you notice that you’re getting less than 6-7 hours of sleep per night on average, it may be time to implement lifestyle changes and rearrange your schedule.
- If you’re worried about potential sleep disorders or that your efforts to get more sleep will prove less than fruitful, consult your primary care physician. Even if they can’t directly solve your problem, they can point you to a sleep expert who can provide an effective diagnosis and therapy plan. If you’ve been tracking your sleep, it helps these professionals get a clear picture of what you’re dealing with.
- Avoid spending time in front of screens near bedtime. While a lot of people use television or the internet for entertainment, it’s far from a healthy habit to have, as it disrupts your circadian rhythm and increases sleep onset latency (how long it takes you to fall asleep).
- Fix your diet and get some exercise if you have the time. Avoid substances such as coffee or alcohol, and try to keep a balanced and healthy diet. Even if you don’t have sleeping disorders, this approach makes you more energized on a daily basis.
Advice For Employers And Managers
- Design work shifts that allow people to get necessary rest. While it may seem counterproductive, those workers would work much more efficiently while well-rested and thus bring more profit.
- Inform your workers about the potential dangers of sleep deprivation. Make sure they don’t spend an incredibly unhealthy amount of time in front of electronics and screens, as this subtly destroys their sleep schedule (and work performance). Workplace accidents become much less frequent if everyone is well-rested.
Advice For Public Authorities
- Make school starting time less disruptive for children and young adults. Short sleepers suffer from academic performance drops, and this is especially true for students from poor backgrounds. Puberty can be a dangerous period when it comes to a child’s circadian rhythm, as they are naturally pushed towards falling asleep and waking up later in the day. Supporting this rhythm can help students achieve academic goals and improve the quality of goods and services across the nation.
- Inform the public, especially employers, about the health and safety risks of sleep deprivation. Increasing awareness of this issue will help everyone else work towards a healthier sleep schedule.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic