What is lack of sleep costing you?

tired woman sleeping at her desk, sleep featured

Busy professionals experience pressures that impede their ability to obtain optimal amounts of sleep; working according to shift patterns, working across different time zones simultaneously, and international travel are all common causes of sleep loss.

In addition, the use of hand-held technologies at night, the ever-increasing pressure to perform (perhaps more importantly, the pressure to be seen to perform) and the lengthening of the working day, all make the challenge of getting optimal sleep difficult for employees.

In 2016, the Royal Society for Public Health conducted a poll of 2,000 adults and found the average reported sleep time to be 6.8hrs. More objective data is provided by Fitbit, the technology provider, who have recently released a sleep report based on data from over six billion nights of sleep. Whilst their data is US-based, the indicators are still critical – working adults are not getting enough sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, all adults between the ages of 18 and 60 should sleep for at least seven hours per night, with an ideal between seven and nine hours. The Fitbit report notes that men are reporting an average of 6hrs 26mins sleep per night, and women an average of 6hrs and 50mins per night.

Sleep-related problems in women

Whilst neither gender is reaching even the minimum recommended amount, women do seem to be beating men at the quantity of sleep stakes. Good news, right?

Actually, no, not necessarily. Getting the right amount of sleep is important, but just as critical is the right quality of sleep, and Fitbit report that women are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from insomnia than men. The academic research suggests that this figure may be closer to 50 per cent – for every one male that reports to suffer from insomnia, there are, on average, two women reporting the same symptoms, and this is not the only gender difference in sleep patterns.

In general, clinical research has found that women exhibit more sleep-related problems than men, particularly during certain phases of the menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, the postpartum period and menopause. In addition to insomnia, restless leg syndrome and excessive daytime sleepiness are also more commonly reported in females than in males.

The costs of sleeplessness can be counted in a number of ways:

Economic costs

Whilst poor sleep may not be the only piece in the productivity jigsaw, it is certainly a critical piece, and one more critical than most working women realise. According to RAND, who conducted a large scale study in 2016, the loss of productivity as a result of working age individuals getting less than seven hours sleep per night results in 0.2 million working days lost per year.

In economic costs, this is between £25 billion and £36 billion per year. Put another way, if every working age adult slept between seven and nine hours per night, it may be possible to save the UK economy £36 billion per year, 1.86 per cent of the UK GDP!

Health costs

Researchers have found that individuals sleeping for less than seven hours per night were three times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to the infection compared with those sleeping for more than seven hours per night.

This may increase absenteeism or presenteeism, and reduce productivity, but it isn’t too drastic. But what about research that has linked chronic sleep reduction (usually thought of consistently less than 7hrs per night) to seven of the fifteen leading causes of death in the US – cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicaemia and hypertension.

Such is the link between hypertension (high blood pressure) and short sleep, that research has now shown that this relationship still remains even after other heart health factors such as age, biological sex, ethnicity, body mass index, smoking, alcohol consumption, diabetes and existing cardiovascular disease are controlled for.

Work costs

It only takes one or two nights of poor sleep (either not getting the right amount, or the right quality) before a whole range of behaviours critical to success in the working environment are affected.

For example, poor sleep has been shown to reduce our ability to learn new information (we can become 40 per cent less effective after one night of poor sleep), to make good quality decisions (particularly those involving high risk/high reward), to be innovative and creative and to demonstrate insight.

Added to this are mood changes – only one night of poor sleep has been shown to contribute to an increase in negative emotions and a reduction in positive emotions the next day at work, along with a reduction in job satisfaction.

Steps to improve sleep

The picture is very clear, and very compelling, so what are some of the steps you can take to improve sleep?

  • Identify whether you are getting less sleep than you need each night (a quantity issue), or the right amount of sleep but with multiple wakening’s or large amounts of light sleep (poor quality), or possibly both. Focus on quantity of sleep. Nobody chooses to reduce their amount of sleep just for the fun of it (unless you are taking part in an experiment!).
  • We make choices, and sacrifice sleep for something we see as more important – time with family, extra commute time for that important job, time at the gym, social time with friends. To increase the amount of sleep you get each night means you have to decide that the benefit of this is more important than the benefit of the sleep displacement activity you are currently engaged in. When you have made this choice, you will be able to increase the quantity of sleep.
  • For quality of sleep, the critical point to understand what the root causes are. Is the issue environmental such as noise, temperature or technology in the bedroom? Is it physiological such as drinking alcohol or caffeine, working shifts or suffering jet lag? Or is it psychological, in that you wake up multiple times in the night because of rumination or worry? Focus on only one or two small changes initially and persevere, because the benefits can be immense.

If every working age adult made small changes, leading to a seven to nine hour sleep each night, we could collectively save the UK economy up to £36 billion pounds every year. Not to mention being healthier, happier and more productive in the process.

About the author

Vicki Culpin is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School

The Business of Sleep: How sleeping better can transform your career,’ by Vicki Culpin, is out on 8 March 2018 (Bloomsbury).


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