• Eve Arnold

The Economic and Human Cost of Poor Sleep

Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

Poor sleep is a big problem.

1963, Randy Gardner wanted to break the world record for the longest time a human being had stayed awake. There have been quite a few attempts at this unusual task but Gardner’s gained quite a lot of traction due to the amount of interest and coverage he’d gotten.

Sleep and poor sleep has been studied for a good while however, most of the attention has been mainly on the psychological impacts of not sleeping. The lack of sleep has knock on effects. Not only on the person or animal experiencing the lack of sleep but to the economy and businesses around the globe.

Business vs. Science

For the longest while, science and business have butted heads over this subject. The science says you need to get between 7–9 hours per night. That’s most nights, if not every night, consistently. Sleep is a priority. Business, or rather, some businesses, say sleep is for the weak. Common phrases like

“I can sleep when I’m dead”

litter offices as if sleep is a commodity to be traded. On the subject of trading, in his book The Buy Side by Turney Duff, there is a distinct lack of sleep. Duff was a wall street trader and his book details the trials and tribulations of what working in wall street was like. It’s everything the film Wolf of Wall Street tells you it is. Booze, drugs, clubs and not a lot of sleep. Duff tells his tales of late nights drinking followed by very early mornings to go and trade, at points, having no sleep whatsoever. Poor sleep is a cool thing.

And that’s where were at. There is this idea in the business world that you can trade sleep, you don’t need your full 8 hours and you’ll be fine. Late nights staying up working on presentations or preparing for meetings is the norm in some industries. Added to that, the technology boom over the last decade or so has meant that we can stay connected for as long as we want. We stay connected until we choose to not look at our phones and close our laptops, not when we leave the office. Switching off is harder than ever.

Back to Randy

His classmates would monitor his condition and behaviours throughout the challenge, even Stanford’s researcher Dr. William C Dement paid the lads a visit upon the record attempt. Although Gardner’s attempt wasn’t without hiccoughs. Poor sleep or the complete lack of leads to problems.

There were noticeable changes in his mood, cognitive ability and memory. On the tenth day he was reportedly asked to count backwards from 100 subtracting 7 each time. He managed to get to 65 before stopping, when the researcher asked him why he stopped he said he’d forgotten what he was doing.

Whilst Randy broke the record, he managed 11 days and 25 minutes, it was clear that sleep deprivation had an impact on the human body. Albeit only whilst actually attempting the challenge. Gardner slept for 14 hours and 40 minutes straight after his attempt and in the weeks following he was given a series of tests. No long term physical or psychological effects were seen. Since Randy’s attempt there have been numerous people that have furthered the record, which currently stands somewhere in the region of 18 days.

Studies in Poor Sleep

Interestingly, poor sleep has been studied for a good while. In 1898, the physiologists Lamberto Daddi and Giulio Tarozzi conducted a series of experiments, they wanted to understand the impact of sleep deprivation on dogs. By using many different stimuli, the dogs were kept awake. The animals died between 9–17 days and reportedly had no relation to the food they were consuming.

There were a multitude of experiments conducted around this time which whilst they may have lacked scientific controls, they provided insight into the bodily reaction to lack of sleep. Many of the experiments noted cognitive decline and motor exhaustion. It’s quite harrowing the effects of zero sleep.

It leads us then to question what is happening during this time that we’re getting some shut eye. Something pretty important if it has such an impact on cognitive function and mood.

What is the Point in Sleeping?

There is obviously a purpose to sleep. There must be a reason us humans and our pets at a certain hour begin to lose focus and start to yawn, followed by the need to be completely unconscious for between 7–9 hours. Sleep is said to be important for a number of reasons.

First off, for what the science calls restitution which includes tissue repair, energy conservation and thermoregulation. Added to this, sleep is important in cognitive performance namely memory consolidation. On top of all this, a reduced sleep time can result in an impaired immune system. But us humans probably are unlikely to have prolonged periods of no sleep, what is more likely is that we have prolonged periods of less than optimal sleep. I.e. We knock an hour off here or there because life gets in the way and then over the month we find ourselves down a substantial amount. The question is, does that matter? Can we trim an hour or two off and not feel the brunt of it?

Studies in Poor Sleep

According to a study, 28% of people report getting an hour less than they consider optimal sleep. The study then aimed to test whether there were noticeable differences in working memory, sustained attention, response inhibition, and decision making. During the experiments the test group had 1 hour less sleep compared to the baseline. The placebo group’s sleeping time was unchanged. The results were fairly interesting. Working memory performance decreased compared to the placebo group however the effects on sustained attention, response inhibition and decision making were seemingly unnoticeable. So getting an hour less sleep results in poorer memory retention but nothing else.

The Cost of Poor Sleep

Sleep deprivation or rather, not getting optimal sleep is a big problem. The main obvious symptom is day time sleepiness but other symptoms include depressed mood and memory loss. Some studies have found that inadequate sleep in high school students is correlated with anxiety, behavioural problems and alcohol usage.

As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, lack of sleep is said to cost the UK economy £40.2 billion in productivity loss every single year. In a report by RAND Europe, the cost associated with lack of sleep to the global economy is incredible, circa $411 billion.

Correlate this with another figure, road accidents. It’s estimated that 10–20% of road accidents each year, globally, are attributed to tiredness. According to an online poll of 20,561 drivers, 1 in 8 admitted to falling asleep at the wheel, with a huge 37% being concerned about falling asleep at the wheel. You are x20 more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at 6am than you are at 10am. So sleep and the lack of it is not only big money, it can be catastrophic.

How to Get More / Better Sleep

There are a few things you can do now we’ve hopefully established that sleep is quite important. Many of us might have problems getting to sleep for various different reasons. However, there are a few things we can do to help us turn off.

  1. Reduce TV consumption just before bed — stop eating the TV (get it?) and try reading instead.

  2. No caffeine after 3pm — this will depend on when you’re going to sleep but a good rule is 3pm.

  3. Create a bed time routine — try and wind down before bed in a similar way each night to get your body used to the idea of winding down.

Sleep is important. It’s not that we just decide at 10pm to get our heads down for a solid 8 hours because it’s a nice little activity. Our bodies clearly need the recovery time. The economic and human cost of poor sleep is quite eye-opening, so if you didn’t get 8 hours last night, go and have a nap.

Or at the very least, avoid driving at 6am.

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