Sleep: the missing dimension

Nov 01 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Struggling with aggressive, grouchy colleagues? If you - or your boss - are a nightmare to work for, you are probably short of sleep – along with much of the rest of the working population.

Lack of sleep is making us shout at work and irritable with our families when we get home, according to new research by think-tank Demos.

"Dream on", a report, written by Former Downing Street adviser Charlie Leadbeater, argues that "working more while sleeping less and less is a recipe for lower productivity, poorer quality and less innovation."

Leadbeater said that sleep is the missing dimension of the work / life balance debate. Government, employers and the consumer market all have a role to play in helping us catch up on our sleep so we can live happier, more productive lives, he argued.

“On any working day, a quarter of all managers in Britain are likely to be in a bad mood because they have not slept well,” Leadbeater said.

“These sleep-deprived and shouty managers with a tendency to make mistakes are responsible for millions of British workers. It’s hardly a recipe for good management.”

Polling by MORI showed that people aged 35-44 think they are the most sleep deprived in Britain (almost half – 48 per cent - say they do not get enough sleep, compared to four out of ten of the general population).

The people who are most likely to suffer from lack of sleep have young children and are holding down managerial jobs.

When asked about the effects of lack of sleep, half of managers said they were irritable and shouted and one in five said they were likely to make mistakes.

In the United States, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has found that the average adult sleeps under seven hours a night during a work week and that four out of ten admit that the quality of their work suffers when they're sleepy. More seriously, it also found that tired drivers cause some 100,000 car crashes annually.

Unsuprisingly, a third of American adults said they would nap at work, if allowed.

In Britain, Leadbeater says that a combination of long hours and high-pressure jobs is similarly affecting people’s sleep, and creating a vicious circle of tiredness and stress.

Apart from children keeping their parents awake, worrying about work is the biggest cause of wakefulness at night among managers (15 per cent, compared to seven per cent of the general population).

The relationship between workplace stress and domestic tensions are particularly apparent. In households with children where both parents work, the problems can be compounded.

“A small loss of sleep is likely to have a big impact on people who lead stressful lives,” Leadbeater added.

“Stressed out parents are already not sleeping enough. They are the people most likely to have their sleep disrupted and they are least able to recover. This cocktail needs to be tackled by employers and policy-makers to reduce the sleep deficit, and its impact of families and workplaces.”

Overall the report argues that we need a change in our attitudes to sleep, so that working long hours and borrowing from sleep time is no longer seen as evidence of a busy, successful person. People who work long or irregular hours, particularly parents of young children, should be allowed to take ‘catch-up days’, it suggests.

It also predicts that there is likely to be a growing market to sleep-deprived people, with an increase in ‘public napping’ and opportunities to take a nap at work.

This idea is already a reality on the 24th floor of the Empire State Building In New York, where for $14 a pop, MetroNaps provides tired office workers with automated ‘shut-eye pods’ (see pic) into which they can dive for 20 minutes of rest.

MetroNaps is an idea that would have found favour with Winston Churchill, who famously took to his bed for a nap each afternoon.

In Japan, meanwhile, a study by the National Institute of Industrial Health has found that for workers who took a 15-minute nap during the post-lunch period, "perceived alertness was significantly higher in the afternoon after the nap than after no nap."

Harvard researchers have also found that a midday nap reverses information overload.

Charles Leadbeater agrees. "Napping makes you smarter, sharper, more alert, happier and more energetic," he said. "People want some sanctuary from the pace of life. Sleep is our sanctuary. We should protect it."