Lack of sleep costing economy $21.4 billion or 80,000 workdays: Study

Cellphones, long commutes, poor habits contributing to lower productivity
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2017

A lack of sleep is costing the Canadian economy dearly by taking a $21.4-billion or 1.35 per cent bite out of the GDP, according to a study — resulting in the loss of 80,000 workdays each year.

But if more workers began sleeping at least six to seven hours at night, another $12 billion could be added to the economic output, found the year-long study by research firm RAND, based on a 2013 representative survey by the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., with numbers extrapolated for Canada.

Workers averaging less than six hours of sleep have a 13 per cent greater chance of mortality risk over someone who gets between seven and nine hours of sleep, said the report.

“Studies show you are more likely to have a car accident if you are sleep-deprived, or you might develop, over time, diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes,” said Marco Hafner, lead researcher at RAND in Cambridge, U.K.

Six hours of sleep or less each night is when negative effects appear with most workers’ health, according to experts.

“Most humans require in the range of seven to nine hours of sleep to be fully rested and prepared to function appropriately the following day,” said Charles Samuels, medical director at the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, adding 30 per cent of North Americans aren’t getting enough downtime each night.

Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis adds up to a sleep “debt” that can only be cured by a person getting more sleep, he said.

“What research in sleep deprivation has demonstrated is that even one hour of sleep debt per night, cumulatively, can result in cognitive impairment the following day, which would include things such as daytime sleepiness, which could impair their driving, poor concentration, poor memory and irritability or changes in behaviour.”

Sleep debt leads to a downgrade in a worker’s productive capacity, according to Jessica Hutcheson, head of HR and facilities at Fatigue Science in Vancouver, which uses a sleep tracker to monitor a person’s sleep functioning and provide a reading on a one-to-100 scale.

“If you are not getting enough sleep, that means you aren’t functioning cognitively at your peak,” she said.

Even a small change in a company’s sleep scale can translate to a difference in performance: At 90, a person suffers an 11 per cent change in reaction time, said Hutcheson, and at 77, there is a 30 per cent drop. This is equivalent to a person having a 0.05 blood alcohol level.

“It compounds over time. It gets worse every time you deprive your body of sleep,” she said. “If you are running consistently on six hours of sleep at night, you probably think that you feel fine because you start to normalize.”

Several reasons behind fatigue

Work stress and home-life factors are the two biggest reasons workers lack sleep, according to a 2016 study by the Conference Board of Canada.

“If you have a child living in your household under the age of 18, you’re more likely to have lack of sleep or feelings of fatigue than those without,” said Charles Boyer, research associate at the Conference Board.

One-quarter (27 per cent) of employees report to work tired most days or every day, and 42 per cent indicated productivity and job performance are somewhat or significantly worse on the days they were tired, found the survey of 739 employees.

“The harmful effects of fatigue are numerous and, in some cases, comparable to the effects of alcohol,” said Mary-Lou MacDonald, director of workplace health, wellness and safety research at the Conference Board.

“Employers that proactively address their employees’ fatigue will have a more productive workforce and a safer working environment.”

Lack of sleep also leads to increased job dissatisfaction, lack of innovation, increased absenteeism, and cyber-loafing, which is defined as a worker sitting at her desk while conducting personal business instead of productive labour, said Boyer.

It may also lead to harmful “cyclical behaviour” such as being curt with co-workers, he said, which could cause that colleague to engage in such unproductive behaviours as interpersonal gossip and incivility toward others.

Another big factor robbing Canadians of sleep is the long drive in to work, which is especially acute for workers living in bigger cities, such as Toronto or Montreal, according to Samuels.

“Geography plays a huge role in all of this,” he said. “As we accumulate sleep debt, which is ubiquitous in North America, people are running around with a 10 to 20 sleep debt per week, easily — just from the commute.”

This leads to an even more damaging effect on a person’s health.

“Over time, chronic, cumulative sleep debt can cause health decrements and the biggest one would be increased consumption of high calorie-dense foods, and the downstream effect of that is weight gain,” said Samuels.

This “poor attention to normal health” could lead to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, he said.

The day-to-day grind requires recovery, which is best accomplished through sleep.

“As we push ourselves more and more, and get less and less recovery, rest and sleep, we put ourselves at risk for developing health issues,” said Samuels.

Technology challenges

Constantly being in touch with the outside world, and especially the office, can also become detrimental to workers’ health, said Hafner.

“Because everybody has their smartphone, we are always available for work or for pleasure for checking up on social media.”

“If you use your electronic devices like your iPad or smartphone, they give you a lot of exposure to blue light (which is emitted from electronic devices) and if you do this before you go to sleep, it might lower your levels of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates your inner body clock,” said Hafner. “It has been scientifically shown that this might affect your sleep quality.”

How humans interact with the media can also affect the quality of sleep, said Samuels.

“It’s not the light, it’s the interaction with the phone.”

When workers are checking a late email, the brain begins to wake up and this could delay the beginning of a sleep cycle.

“To get your rest, get rid of your phone,” said Samuels, who advises it is better to “attend to life in a normal fashion, not a technological fashion.”

Checking back into the office from home has an effect on the brain, whether or not the message is addressed, said Boyer.

“Reading the email already gets your mind going and racing and then you are thinking about that email for the next hour,” he said, and even if a person doesn’t respond immediately, his brain is already thinking about how to respond in the morning.

Potential fixes

So what can HR managers do to help address this issue? It starts with companies not being afraid to make sleep a priority, according to Boyer.

“All employees can benefit from a fatigue-management plan.”

And employers should attempt to erase the stigma workers might feel about reporting lack of sleep as a factor in decreased productivity.

“If you are reprimanding them, then no one will come forward and admit this is causing an issue and the organization can’t mitigate the risk,” said Boyer.

Hafner cited the example of Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington who physically collapsed one day in 2007 and hit her head. She then realized a lack of sleep contributed greatly to her fall.

“She basically came to the conclusion that sleep might matter,” said Hafner.

Organizations should start at the top by seeing sleep as an important factor and not as a waste of time, as some CEOs claim, he said.

“(They should) see sleep of employees as a productivity factor or something that might increase productivity of employees,” said Hafner. “The company might build a corporate culture that starts valuing sleep.”

The biggest thing is creating a culture where sleep is a priority, said Hutcheson. As an example, Fatigue Science regularly interacts with workers in different time zones around the world, but focuses on “making sleep a priority, understanding the impact of sleep on your performance and creating a space where that happens,” she said.

Part of a good leader’s job is to recognize the harmful effects that are happening when employees don’t get enough sleep. Businesses should be “trying to teach their managers to know and recognize signs and symptoms,” said Boyer, and then prompt managers to become proactive in addressing the issue.

Employers should also do more to enlighten employees about the benefits of good sleep, said Samuels.

“They can educate the workers on how to look after their health, attending to recovery, which allows them to eat more healthful, be more active,” he said. “Get enough sleep: That’s the bottom line, that’s the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.”

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