The true cost of not getting enough sleep


U.S. President Barack Obama yawns at a NATO meeting in Warsaw, Poland, July 8, 2016.
Image: Sean gallup/Getty Images

Modern humans have plenty of bad habits that keep us from getting a good night’s sleep.

We work long days and check email after-hours, or we toss and turn while fretting about student loans. We fire off late-night tweets or binge-watch Westworld episodes before bed. During the day, some of us drink and smoke too much or exercise too little, which also disrupts the sleep cycle.

These behaviors aren’t just bad for our personal health they also take a massive collective toll on the global economy, a new report found.

In the United States alone, sleep deprivation costs up to $411 billion a year due to lower workforce productivity and higher risk of death, according to RAND Europe, which is part of the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

Four other major developed economies Canada, Germany, Japan and the U.K. lose a combined $269 billion a year from their sleep-deprived citizenry.

From the Nov. 30 report, “Why sleep matters the economic costs of insufficient sleep.”

Image: rand europe

“There’s often this claim that sleep is for wimps and sleep is a waste of time,” especially within corporate culture, said Marco Hafner, a senior economist at RAND Europe and lead author of the new report.

“But there’s increasing evidence that [sleep deprivation] is bad for your health, your well-being, and maybe even bad for your relationships,” he told Mashable by phone from Cambridge.

U.S. health experts recommend adults sleep 7 to 9 hours a day, though sleep needs can vary from person to person.

Yet more than a third of American adults likely aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency recently declared sleep deprivation to be a “public health problem.”

Age-adjusted prevalence of adults aged 20 years reporting sleep-related difficulty, by usual sleep duration.

Image: CDC

Some downsides of insufficient sleep are apparent to anyone who’s clocked too few hours of slumber. It’s far more difficult to focus at work or school, to drive safely or even communicate clearly when you’re tired.

Other effects of sleep deprivation are less obvious but perhaps more worrying.

People getting insufficient sleep are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity, as well as from cancer and increased likelihood of death, according to the CDC.

A series of studiesin 2013 found that sleep may also play an important role in our brain’s physiological maintenance: As we sleep, the brain clears out all of the mental junk that builds up during the day. But a restless night can disturb the brain’s normal metabolism and affect our cognitive function.

Hafner and his RAND team considered such scientific research in their economic modeling of sleep deprivation.

The researchers also studied data from a 2013 representative survey by the National Sleep Foundation, which compared the sleep times, attitudes, habits and bedtime routines of adults ages 25 to 55 in the five major economies.

According to the RAND report:

  • Sleep deprivation costs the U.S. between $280 billion and $411 billion a year, depending on the economic modeling scenario. That equals up to 2.28 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

  • While the U.S. has the highest total annual loss, Japan has the highest estimated loss as a share of its overall economy. Japan loses between $88 billion and $138 billion a year, or up to 2.92 percent of its GDP.

  • Sleepy U.K. residents cost the economy up to $50 billion a year, or 1.86 percent of the GDP.

  • Canada’s economy fared the best among the bunch, with its economy losing up to $21.4 billion a year from sleep deprivation, or 1.35 percent of its GDP.

The economic estimates are based on three main factors.

First, regularly sleeping for less than 7 hours a day is associated with a litany of health problems and a higher risk of mortality. Second, insufficient sleep is known to result in lower productivity at work and a higher number of employees who call in sick.

A bull elephant seal snoozes in South Georgia Island, Antarctica.

Image: VWPics via AP Images

And third, a lack of sleep among children and young adults can cause them to fall behind in school, potentially setting them up for a path of problems that result in lower earnings throughout their lifetime.

Hafner said the RAND study is further evidence that individuals should take steps to ensure we get our optimum level of sleep. That might mean switching off the smartphone hours before bedtime, or meditating to address anxiety and stress that can keep you up at night.

For companies, the research indicates a need to set time limits on when supervisors can send emails, to ensure employees aren’t overworked and adopt other interventions, like a Google-style nap room.

“It’s really important to start building a culture that values sleep,” Hafner said.

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