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Need for sleep not speed - The economic cost of sleep deprivation

By Uma Parasuram

“Money never sleeps” they say, but humans do!

When life gets stressful and work piles on, the first thing we do is sacrifice our sleep. With the advent of technology and 24/7 electric supply, our days have become longer and nights shorter. In this productivity-obsessed world, we’ve forgotten the importance of sleep. To sleep does not tantamount to laziness. “The need for proper medical attention towards attaining good sleep is growing as we see shrinking schedules and lack of time,” says Dr. Ved Prakash (from KGMU). Modi brags about sleeping for five hours and the CEO of Pepsi for 4, why are the learned fretting over who sleeps the least! Here’s what would happen if we continue with this crazy frenzy- you’d probably end up making the big bucks but would have to spend most of it on repairing your health. Inadequate sleep not only hinders individual health and well-being, but its effects ripple into the economy.


In pursuit of chasing money and fame, people are fast forgetting the power of sleep- a biological necessity and body’s own way of recovery. Since vitamin M (money) has become the globally understood language, let’s put things into a numeric perspective. Around 30% Americans sleep fewer than 6 hours and in India, 93% of the population is sleep deprived. Studies have shown that poor sleep is associated with a 13% increased risk of mortality and causes Type II diabetes, hypertension, low mood, depression, cardiovascular diseases, to name a few of the ailments. Sleep deprivation, in the United States, results in economic losses of up to $411billion (2.28% of its GDP) or 1.23 million working days, according to a study by RAND Corporation. The same study shows that Japan incurs losses of around $138 billion and Germany of $60 billion as a result of lack of sleep.


Human beings spend 1/3rd of their life asleep, despite which, very little is known about this biological necessity. One of the biggest health epidemics that US is facing today is due to sleep deprivation. To make matters worse, developing countries with larger and poorer populations, are said to face a magnified version of this problem. If the United States, a nation with a much smaller population compared to India, starts sleeping for 7 hours on an average, the economy could grow by $226.4 billion. In India, a nation that is almost completely sleep deprived and ridden with ailments could grow two-fold by simply sleeping more! If sleep has such huge economic impacts, why then is a rational human sacrificing this luxury? This is due to the mismatch in trade-off between sleep and productivity. The repercussions of poor sleep are seen very subtly and only over time, making sleep easier to sacrifice and productivity a lot more attractive in the short run.


What makes sleep so sacred?

Sleep is the only mechanism through which information gets stored from our short-term memory to long-term memory. There are three stages of sleep – light, deep and REM (rapid-eye movement) or the dream stage. Deep sleep aids physical recovery and REM - memory and mental recovery. Thus, cutting down on sleep affects us mentally and physically, making the labour force more and more unproductive. Think of our body as a machine, what over-heating is to a machine, stress is to our body. Human beings need sleep to recover from the day’s activities, sleep is a natural phenomenon that keeps the body healthy and ensures longevity. Like a machine needs rest, humans need sleep, adequate sleep. Adults require anywhere between 7-9 hours of sleep and children a minimum of 10 hours. Dr. Allison Siebern of Stanford University says, "From helping maintain a healthy immune system, to preserving your cognitive functions and managing a healthy weight, your sleep - or lack of - plays a critical role." He is also on Fitbit’s advisory board of Sleep Experts.


Every third person is sleep deprived, so 1/3rd of the total global labour force is under- performing and carries a higher risk of diabetes, fatigue, depression, etc. The economic burden of poor sleep is only going to cost companies more with each coming year, by 2020 sleep deprivation could cost US almost $1 trillion. The problem of poor sleep is not restricted only to the working class, children and teens are spending more time on their fancy gizmos. From being a source of entertainment to reading, everything is electronic today. This has detrimental effects on our health in two alarming ways – one, the light impairs eyesight and two, it leads to ‘gadget-addiction’ for which there is no known cure. Poor sleep has been linked to lower GPA in students as well as difficulty in focusing. Sleep is the only known mechanism that aids memory retention and mental recovery. As the quantum of individuals with sleep issues is growing, the productivity of the entire nation then comes into question.


While the recommended sleep hours are said to be anywhere between 7-9 hours, this is not an arbitrary number, everyone is known to have his/her unique ‘sleep signature’. Some can make do with 5 hours of efficient sleep, while others may need up to 11 hours. Outliers exist in all walks of life, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that globally we are tending towards a sleepier planet. Time is money, and sleep takes up a substantial amount of time. More sleep could thus mean less money earned. We sleep less in order to do more, but people need to soon realize that this madness is only backfiring.


Sleep deprivation is a vicious cycle, sleep gets cut short due to various work-related stresses, poor mental health, obesity, sleep disorders, etc. This then causes further mental distress that results to prolonged sleep deprivation. The cost of this sleep debt is then ill health and lower productivity that culminates into billions of dollars’ worth economic losses. Individuals need to proactively ensure clean sleeping habits with consistent wake up times and combined with awareness camps in educational and corporate institutions. Who saw a time where sleep had to be advertised? In lust for monetary increments, we, so called ‘rational consumers’ have lost sight of all rationale.





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