A quick review of blogs, tweets, Facebook postings and talk shows reveals that in the United States, we tend to complain an awful lot, and mostly about things that would seem extremely minor or even nonsensical to those living in countries that are not quite so privileged. But recent reports are indicating that one of the problems that seems endemic to highly advanced societies like ours can cause serious physical problems, and may even lead to reduced productivity and innovation.
Sleep deprivation in the United States and other first world countries has reached epidemic proportions. Board an early morning train or bus in any metropolitan area and you are likely to be surrounded by commuters with closed eyes, desperately trying to grab just a few more minutes of sleep before they arrive at their destination. It has become a given that we need to get up long before we would prefer to in order to get to school or work on time, and many people have no idea what their natural awakening time would be if they had that luxury. Everybody expects to be tired all of the time.
Though that may be seen as a sign of a highly advanced and productive society, the truth is that it is likely causing a lot more harm than good, having a negative impact on our mood, energy and overall wellbeing. According to Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, “The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society.” The results of his study were recently published in Current Biology, and they indicate that approximately 30 percent of people who are living in first world countries like the United States are waking up a full two hours before the time that is natural for their body, and 69 percent are waking up one hour before.
Though it is true that everybody is slightly different in terms of the amount of sleep that they need, it is becoming evident that our work and sleep habits are taking a toll. And it isn’t just those who are consistently getting too little sleep who are impacted. Getting poor quality or short quantity of sleep for a single night can have a notable impact.
According to a study that appeared in Psychological Science, less than five hours of sleep per night decreases cognitive abilities. People cannot concentrate and may even be at risk for false memories. According to Steven . Frenda of the University of California in Irvine, almost 200 people participated in a study on the subject, and those who slept fewer than five hours per night were much more apt to indicate having seen a news video that they hadn’t actually seen. The same group was found to be very open to suggestion. When researchers mentioned information to them during conversation, 38 percent of study participants ended up incorporating the stories that they had been told into their own narratives. Though many of those who had gotten more than five hours of sleep did the same, the numbers were significantly less. The conclusion that researchers came to was that lack of sleep diminishes our ability to encode information.
Based on their findings, the group has suggested that testimony of eyewitnesses during a trial may be suspect, particularly if the witnesses did not get sufficient sleep the night before the trial. Beyond the impact of testimony and productivity, there are also increasing concerns that students who are sleep deprived may not be retaining information that they are being taught. A 2001 study that appeared in the journal Science showed that students who slept better also remember what they had been taught better. A study conducted in 2014 reflected better exam scores for those who had sufficient sleep. The difference was a substantial nine percent higher for those who had seven hours of sleep when compared to those who slept one hour less. Another study showed that sleeping less than five or six hours had a significant negative impact on the ability to learn motor sequences, something that is of great importance when dealing with shift workers who might be operating heavy machinery or responsible for the assembly of machinery.
On a positive note, there is evidence to indicate that we are able to game our own internal systems simply by convincing ourselves that we’ve gotten the sleep that we needed, but there is only so long that you can tell yourself that you slept well before chronic sleep deprivation will catch up with you. Another way to overcome lack of sleep is to do exactly what we all see those morning train passengers do – grabbing a ten-minute nap can go a long way towards increasing short-term alertness and cognitive abilities like problem solving.
Napping is becoming increasingly acceptable in corporate environments as managers become more and more aware of the impact of sleep deprivation on the productivity of their workforce. Not only are companies starting to create napping stations and wellness rooms to which employees can retreat, but some are taking the effort even farther and forbidding employees to work extended hours or to access email during time out of the office. The idea may finally be sinking in that — unlike the message being sent by those who sleep under their desks and work sixteen hour days — there are risks and downsides to workers who are burning the candle at both ends. Those who are getting good quality and quantity sleep are generating fresher ideas and exhibiting greater productivity and leadership skills, and these are characteristics that are valued more than simply being at the desk, bleary-eyed.