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02 September 2015

The dream deficit 

Sleep is critical to long-term health and daily productivity, with the average adult requiring between 7-9 hours of slumber every night. As global smartphone and tablet penetration rates increase, however, we are getting less shuteye than ever.

There are a complex set of neurological factors that lead nighttime users of LED-based devices to suffer sleep problems. In the simplest terms, excessive amounts of such light prevent the release of melatonin, which is what makes us feel sleepy.

More fundamentally, according to researchers at California State University, the hyper-connected are counting sheep because they suffer from FOMO, or fear of missing out.

In their not-yet-released study of 700 college students, these researchers found that “students who were more anxious about being apart from their phones used their phones more during a typical day, and woke up to check their phones more often at night. The latter two results – more daily smartphone use and more nighttime awakenings – led directly to sleep problems.”

Fortunately, the cure for iPhone-induced insomnia couldn’t be simpler: turn off all your devices one hour before bedtime, and keep them off (or in another room) until you wake up.

Given the significant health risks associated with insufficient sleep – including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity – everyone should follow that advice. Those who nevertheless insist upon burning the midnight oil may wish to note that, according to the British Sleep Council, sleeping less than six hours a night increases the risk of early death by 12%.

Employers also have strong incentives to encourage a well-rested workforce. A recent study of more than 21,000 employees found that those who slept for six hours or less a night were significantly less productive than those who slept for seven or eight hours.

Sleep deprivation is also, of course, a leading cause of automobile accidents. In the US alone, 100,000 crashes per year are the direct result of driver fatigue, causing some 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in losses.

Likewise, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, Exxon Valdez oil spill and explosion of the space shuttle Challenger have all been linked to actions taken by sleep-deprived employees.

The world has been getting progressively less sleep since the invention of electricity, including, on average, about an hour less shuteye per night now than 50 years ago.    

The populations of the United States and Japan – two of the world’s fastest-paced nations – suffer from the worst-quality sleep, averaging less than six hours per night during the working week. 

Meanwhile, residents of bucolic Switzerland get unusually high-quality bed rest, and are also among the world’s earliest risers – typically setting the alarm for 7:13AM. Pastoral New Zealand is home to likewise sound sleepers, with the average Kiwi spending almost 7.5 hours in bed per night.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the French get the most sleep in the developed world, averaging nearly nine hours every night – along with two hours a day eating, also the highest figure in the OECD.

Those who mock such figures – as well as the government-legislated 35-hour workweek and mandatory 30 days of paid annual vacation – should note that the country is not just the best rested but also among the most productive in the world.