Getting the facts right.
The British economy loses £40 billion a year due to sleep deprivation, according to a new study. Beyond the loss of economic output, sleep-deprived Britons are shortening their lives. The study shows that people who sleep less than six hours a night have a 13% higher mortality rate than those sleeping at least seven hours.
Many Britons, in short, are swapping slumber for an early grave. They are sacrificing years of their life by not getting a good night’s sleep.
But what lies behind this sleep malaise? What is keeping Britons awake at night? And what can be done to combat sleep deprivation?
Many factors contribute to sleeplessness, from family worries through to financial concerns. But one factor that stands out is work. The work we do determines how much sleep we get by affecting how tired we are, how anxious we feel, and how much free time we get. Thus, sleep loss cannot be properly solved without addressing the way we work – in particular, it entails moves to kick the work ethic and to work less.
The study by research firm Rand Europe looks at the effects of sleep deprivation in five countries. It finds that the economic cost (in terms of working days lost) due to lack of sleep is greatest in the US (up to US$411 billion a year, equating to 2.28% of its GDP), followed by Japan (up to US$138 billion a year, equal to 2.92% of its GDP).
Next comes Germany (up to US$60 billion, 1.56% of its GDP) and the UK (up to US$50 billion, 1.86% of its GDP). Canada records the lowest economic cost due to sleep deprivation (up to US$21.4 billion, which is 1.35% of its GDP).
These estimates are used to show the significant economic benefits of extending sleep time. For example, if Americans that sleep less than six hours could start sleeping six to seven hours, then the US economy could grow by US$226.4 billion.
The important added benefit of extended sleep time is that it reduces the chances of premature death.
Low sleep levels are a reflection of new trends in our relationship with work. The divide between work and life outside of work has become blurred. People now find themselves at work even when at home. The expectation of being on call outside of work has increased, through the use of smartphones and laptops.
Plus, while official work hours may have declined in most countries, unofficial (out-of-hours) working has increased. This time is not only performed for free; it also comes at the cost of time with family and friends, and crucially time for sleep. Workers cannot easily switch-off from work if they have access to technologies that connect them to their place of work. Checking email can often replace going to sleep. It can also mean lying awake at night thinking of what emails to send or reply to.
Recent years have also seen a rise in self-employment and other forms of precarious work. This rise has left workers vulnerable to a never-ending cycle of work. Even when not working, time is spent seeking new work or chasing payment from work already done. The stress and anxiety of not having the same benefits as full-time workers and of getting-by on low wages makes for a life where sleep is short and disturbed.
Meanwhile, society’s approach to work remains the same as it ever was. The sanctity of work remains unquestioned, despite it taking time away from sleep and robbing people of their health. In Britain, work is still lauded as the best way to prosperity and health. The illusion is that “work pays” even though for many it lacks any stimulating content, pays a pittance, and is performed at the expense of sleep.
The study by Rand Europe, despite its critical implications, reaches weak policy recommendations. It refers to the need for people to “set consistent wake-up times; limit the use of electronic items before bedtime; and exercise”. Missing is any reference to peoples’ lack of choice and control. The inability to switch-off from work is not recognised as an endemic problem, in need of collective solutions.
Employers are encouraged to recognise the “importance of sleep” and to “design and build brighter workspaces; combat workplace psychosocial risks; and discourage the extended use of electronic devices”. These are laudable goals but they miss how employers benefit from out-of-hours working (at least in the short run) and how they may be encouraged to turn a blind-eye to sleep deprivation for profit reasons.
Public authorities are encouraged to “support health professionals in providing sleep-related help; encourage employers to pay attention to sleep issues; and introduce later school starting times”. Again there is nothing here on overcoming the deeper-lying limits to sleep time, which connect with the work system as a whole.
We are left with the false impression that sleep deprivation can be tackled in a piecemeal way and without broader action, such as curbs on work time, extended paid holidays, and stronger unions.
Being constantly at work and losing sleep is not good for anyone. It ultimately reflects a culture where work comes before life. It represents a world out of sync with humanity – a perversion of life and a road to ruin.
This is why more radical solutions are needed. Gaining more sleep requires creating a society in which work is less important in human life. It necessitates a move to a society where leisure and rest are given their due weight and technology is actually harnessed to enable more rest and less work – not the opposite.
The demand for more sleep translates into a demand for less work. This means shorter work hours and more free time. It means a life where we rest easy in our beds, get enough sleep, and have the opportunity to dream of a better world to come.
David Spencer is a Professor of Economics and Political Economy for the University of Leeds.