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How sleep deprivation impacts our work and the economy

Many of us have struggled through a sleepless night at some point, checking the time and tossing and turning until daylight creeps through the curtains. Whether you struggle to fall asleep in the first place or wake up through the night, not getting enough sleep is frustrating and leaves us exhausted, irritable, and foggy-headed.

As many as 16 million adults in the UK suffer from sleepless nights, with a third dealing with insomnia, according to a 2017 survey by Aviva. Two-thirds of Brits struggle with disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter — 23% — only manage up to five hours of sleep a night.

Sleeplessness, or insomnia, can have a serious impact on all aspects of our lives, including our health – and has been linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as our mental health. It also impacts our work, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has struggled through a day in the office after little sleep.

On average, adults need between seven and nine hours’ sleep and children need to sleep for nine to 13 hours. According to the NHS, toddlers and babies need between 12 and 17 hours.

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One bad night is unlikely to impact your work, but research has shown that trouble sleeping in the long-term can affect work attendance and performance. Lack of sleep affects your mood, your judgment, and your ability to focus, which can lead to errors or poor decision making.

A study published in the journal Sleep in 2018 found that insomnia was the sleep problem that had the greatest impact on work productivity. Analysing data from more than 1,000 adults in the US, researchers found those with moderate-severe insomnia experienced more than double the productivity loss — 107% more — compared to someone without insomnia.

“In a real-world sample of about 1,000 people, those who were sleeping less, and those who were not getting good quality sleep, were actually at a disadvantage when it comes to productivity,” said lead author Robert Yang, a student research assistant in the Sleep and Health Research Program led by Grandner. “This is further evidence that sleep is not wasted time—it’s wisely invested time!”

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Poor sleep and insomnia can also lead to more time off sick for workers, too. In 2006, French researchers studied more than 700 employees – half of whom were insomniacs – over a two-year period to find out more about absenteeism.

The results showed those who suffered from insomnia had a significantly higher rate of time off sick than those who slept well. This, unsurprisingly, came at a cost to employers in France, the researchers added.

Chronic sleep deprivation also compromises your immune system, making you more likely to get sick with common colds and other illnesses which can lead to time off work.

The negative impact of insomnia on productivity, along with absenteeism and errors due to tiredness, has a knock-on effect on the economy, research has shown. Based on a survey of 7,400 individuals, Harvard University estimates sleep deprivation costs companies $2,280 (£1,741) per employee, or 11.3 days of productivity, each year. In the UK, it costs the economy up to £40bn ($52.3bn) a year, according to RAND.

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A 2017 study estimated that pushing back school classes in the US — giving pupils more time to sleep — would add $83bn to the national economy over a decade, and $140bn over 15 years, by raising students’ academic attainments and reducing illness.

Stress, too much screen-time and poor “sleep hygiene” – the time spent preparing for bed – are often blamed for sleep problems. So what can we do to address the problem?

“There are lots of methods available to help aid sleep, such as avoiding electronic devices close to bedtime, controlling light and noise levels and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine,” said Dr Doug Wright, medical director, Aviva UK Health.

Specifically, it is short-wavelength blue light from the screens we watch that keeps us awake, a 2017 study by the University of Haifa found. Not only does it damage the duration of our sleep, but the quality too.

“Alcohol can also lead to disrupted sleep and a ‘night cap’ to aid sleep can actually have the opposite effect,” Wright added. Lifestyle changes can help improve our sleep quality too, including getting more exercise and fresh air during the day and taking regular breaks from the computer.

The NHS advises to see your GP if changing your sleeping habits hasn’t worked, if you have had trouble sleeping for months or if your insomnia is making it hard for you to cope. They may refer you to a cognitive behavioural therapist to help change problematic thoughts and behaviours which make it hard to sleep. Sleeping pills can be addictive so they are rarely prescribed and if they are, they are usually only prescribed for a week or so.