This is the third and final part of a series on sleep, an important topic we’ve been doing a deep dive on over the last several weeks. In our first article, we took a deep dive into the science behind sleep- what it does for us, why we need it, and how lack thereof can affect us. Our second article covered sleep in the specific context of modern times- how lack of sleep became such an issue in many people’s lives today and how to address this issue. In this article, we’ll continue looking at how we can address sleep and start taking it more seriously on a societal level and what we stand to gain from doing so.
Sleep deprivation has become such a prevalent issue, and it’s no longer relevant to speak of it exclusively on an individual basis. As we discussed already, among industrialized countries, often about half of the population doesn’t get adequate sleep. In several countries, that number can be as high as 60-70%. Sleep deprivation has become a bona fide epidemic- in the most literal definition of the word. And considering the effects sleep (and lack thereof) has on individuals, once such a large portion of society is affected by sleep-related issues, it’s no surprise that problems will arise for society as a whole.
The consequences of bad sleeping habits on an individual basis are pretty significant. Emotional imbalance and general moodiness, lack of productivity, inability to concentrate, and many other adverse effects can be felt even after one night of insufficient sleep (refer to our first article for an in-depth look at all these effects). On a societal level, all of these things transfer over pretty directly. The only difference- besides the fact that it’s much more dire- is that these things are a lot clearer to track and prove on such a large scale.
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When we consider these personal consequences, it’s no shocker that we can find tangible results on a collective scale. For example, Sleep Cycle- an app that tracks sleep and overall night time activity- tracked sleep for over a million individuals across a number of countries across the world. In doing so, they were able to track approximately how much sleep people get on average by country. There’s nothing new about this information in and of itself- many people in the industrialized world aren’t getting enough sleep, and most who are getting just barely enough sleep (slightly over 7 hours).
However, The Economist analyzed this data and compared it to the GDP per capita of the respective nation. The results were telling (but unsurprising for anyone who’s been following our blog)- there was a very direct correlation between the average amount of hours slept and GDP per capita. Of course, there were some outliers (as there always are)- most notably South Korea and Japan, where people were getting the least amount of sleep out of all the countries studied, but still seemed to have a very admirable GDP per capita. But we’ll touch on their specific case a bit later.
Now, this probably isn’t groundbreaking news. Logically it follows that when you sleep more, you’re just generally more productive. And if everyone sleeps more, then the entire economy is more energized and more productive. Of course, there’s more to GDP (or GDP per capita) than sleeping. Economics is, after all, a complex and nuanced field, but the correlation and the logic are certainly there to make a case for sleep creating a more productive and wealthier nation. However, there’s yet another layer to all of this that needs to be addressed- how hard these countries actually work.
When looking at the average hours worked per week within OECD countries, there is a near-perfect inverse relationship between the countries with the highest GDP per capita (or the highest average amount of sleep) and those who work the most. That means that those who sleep the least also put in more hours at work. So, a question arises: would people work more efficiently if they got enough rest? The average workweek for countries such as Netherlands, Germany, or those in Scandinavia is below or just above 30, and they also tend to get the most sleep- which implies that workers are more efficient on a full night’s sleep.
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No doubt, often this issue is a cyclical one: sacrifice rest for work, get insufficient sleep, then work inefficiently, rinse, and repeat. The perfect example of this is the aforementioned countries of South Korea and Japan. In recent decades, two of the world’s emerging powerhouses when it comes to tech. That reputation, however, has come at a price. The Japanese and South Koreans are some of the most overworked people in the first world. The only other countries putting in similar numbers in Asia (other than Hong Kong) are incredibly underdeveloped countries where workers most likely work so much due to poverty and necessity.
Actually, the issue of overwork is so prevalent there is a specifically East Asian phenomenon the Japanese have dubbed “karoshi”- death from overwork- wherein workers die from working too much. The number of causes varies- some die from stroke, some from a heart attack, while others die from starvation. The cause may vary, but the situation is often the same, healthy and (usually) young workers neglect their health for work and die, often at their workplace, after an exceptionally long shift.
So even though these countries do put out high efficiency, have a very respectable GDP per capita, and, by all accounts, live more comfortably than most other countries on the globe, they do so at a costly price. And though many factors play a role in karoshi, one of the most significant ones is the fact that countries like South Korea and Japan are, on average, getting less than 6.5 hours of sleep a night. This is egregious even in the context of a developed world that is facing a sleep deprivation epidemic. No other country in the industrialized world averages this little.
Most respective countries seem to have some form of issue that either directly has to do with sleep deprivation or is strongly exacerbated by it. These issues are social, economic, and even life-threatening. However, there is a silver lining to all of this- and that’s that there are very pragmatic ways to deal with these on a collective level. Even better- some countries or groups have already begun doing so.
We’ve already stressed this plenty of times, but the most significant change that needs to happen when it comes to how we view sleep is attitude. The first step recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the biggest issue facing us both individually and collectively is most people are either unaware that sleep is such a severe issue or they don’t treat it seriously even if they are aware of how important sleep is.
The karoshi phenomenon- well, it’s still a very real problem in East Asia, but there is some good news about this horrible occurrence. Since the term was coined in the 1970s, it’s come to the attention of people in Japan and elsewhere in Easter Asia, namely South Korea. Karoshi becoming a household term helped bring awareness to it. Overwork and sleep deprivation is an unfortunate combination that most people are aware of in South Korea and Japan, and helping bring attention to how dire of an issue it actually is, helped bring about real change.
Some tangible and legislative changes have come along in the last few years in both countries. In 2018, South Korea lowered the maximum amount of hours allowed to work per week from 68 hours to 52 (40 regular hours plus 12 hours of overtime) with the explicit reason of avoiding overwork and giving people more time to rest and recuperate. Japan, in its turn, has been making reforms in the work environment a top priority. Although the issue of sleep deprivation has been addressed before in Japan, their solution (allocating some time at offices for employees to take a nap) isn’t a beneficial one long term. The occasional nap is an okay way to deal with tiredness short term, but it’s no long-term solution for repeatedly getting insufficient rest.
Instead, more recently, more and more companies in Japan have started taking up a four day work week as a way to combat overwork and sleep deprivation. The number of firms who have taken up the four day work week has more than doubled since 2010. By promoting a culture of rest and recuperation, they can ensure their people are well-rested, alert, and productive. Changes like these are a very positive change for the industrialized world that prove that things such as sleep, health, and recuperation are now serious issues that people are addressing.
The vital thing to note, however, is that it isn’t just employees who suffer from sleep deprivation and overwork. Employers actively stand to lose out on efficiency and profit as well. So even if you are an employer and employee health isn’t a top priority for you, these issues should still be on your mind as you stand to lose profit from them. Overwork leads to sleep-deprived employees which leads to inefficient work, and so on.
As Robert Owen famously said, the ideal work-life balance would be 8-8-8. 8 hours of work, 8 hours of recreation, and (most importantly!) 8 hours of rest. This created the 8-hour workday that we know today. The 40-hour workweek, however, was first implemented by Henry Ford. He cut back on the 48-hour workweek (8 hours per day for 6 days a week), after realizing that his employees needed recuperation and rest in order to be more productive. This is called the law of diminishing returns- wherein a point is reached that the amount of output is not worth the amount of time, energy, or money spent on it. Ford realized that allowing employees to rest properly had not only tangible employee benefits, but also very real employer benefits.
Today, companies such as Google have begun to implement a more flexible working schedule, wherein employees are free to work by their own schedule provided they get their tasks done and attend all mandatory meetings. These trends prevent overwork and stress, but often what isn’t mentioned is the fact that overwork and stress are things that go hand in hand with sleep deprivation. In implementing more lenient or shorter work hours, companies are allowing their employees to get their proper rest and come to work energized, recuperated, and ready to have a productive day.
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Ultimately, what this all boils down to is the ideal work-life balance. Owen’s idea was pivotal at the time and incredibly important in the sense that it got people to start thinking about the work-life balance. Sleep is a pivotal part of it, but an issue arises because it’s often the part that gets sacrificed in the name of the other two. When you take into account the fact that people need to prepare for work, commute to their job, take a lunch break, and commute back home, the time taken up by things pertaining to work is far more than 8 hours. Add to that the fact that most people need to cook and clean once they’re home too, and it’s no surprise that most people decide to sacrifice an hour or two of rest to make up for the time taken up by work and recreation.
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Like Google, many other places have begun experimenting with alternative work schedules. At one retirement home in Sweden, they attempted a 6-hour workday for nearly 2 years. Issues with the state budget eventually forced the state to end the experiment. Still, the results were promising, with nurses (who work in one of the most stressful fields out there) reporting being more energized, more well-rested, and overall more productive during their 6 hour work days as opposed to their 8-hour workdays.
Many firms in Singapore (another country with a very low average for hours of sleep per night) have begun implementing early days once or twice a week, wherein employees end their day at 3:30 PM. This helps employees run their errands without sacrificing their recreation or rest time to do so. Once again, results were promising, with employees having adequate time to run errands, relax, get their 8 hours, and become more productive at work as a result of it.
The truth is that there is no universal work-life balance. Every person must find their own work-life balance to ensure they are productive at work and well-rested. But the important thing to highlight here is that more and more companies and countries are bringing attention to the importance of doing so. This is already a massive step forward. That being said, there are other solutions out there to explore as well.
Another trend that’s been picking up steam recently is workplace wellness programs. Programs designed to create a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce. These programs are designed to create a fun way to encourage employees to lead healthier lives. According to a government survey from America, the percentage of companies offering wellness programs is growing rapidly, with 30% of all companies nationwide in the United States offering some form of program that focuses on physical activity and health.
These programs can vary when it comes to the details, but generally, employers incentivize employees by including competitions, often with prizes for winners. These competitions are a great way to motivate workers to become healthier and can come in various forms. There are walking challenges, weight loss challenges, water drinking challenges, and- yep, you guessed it!- sleeping challenges.
These corporate wellness programs are becoming ubiquitous within firms everywhere, and the best part is that they’re easy and incredibly cheap to implement. Many people have wellness trackers or smartwatches that can track fitness and/or wellness in-depth, but even people without it can track things such as steps, calories, and sleep with their smartphones nowadays. Other applications can help track a number of other things. And for small offices, it can be a positive way to spice things up at the office and add a little fun to the work environment.
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Many companies have opted for wellness consultants as well, specialists who can help employers design the perfect corporate wellness program for their office, taking into account a multitude of factors. These specialists can also track results on an employee to employee basis and meet with employees to address their specific issues. So if an employee is having trouble sleeping, a wellness consultant can help them figure out why exactly and help get them on the right track.
Such programs and specialists are a massive step in promoting a culture of health and wellness on a collective level, especially when it comes to good sleeping habits. They can help be a huge leap forward in addressing sleeping issues on a broader scale. And seeing how correlated overworking, stress, and lack of productivity is with sleep deprivation or negligence, this could prove to be the single best way to address this issue on a larger level. As we saw with the examples of Sweden, Singapore, and Japan, these changes generally tend to come from companies and firms instead of individuals or governments.
Not only do wellness programs promote health, wellbeing, and help address pressing issues such as sleep deprivation, but they build an environment of trust between employer and employee. Such programs show employees employers care and provide employers with a more productive and energized team, one who can avoid overworking or stressing in order to meet deadlines. And by addressing sleep, they can help employees realize just how prevalent of an issue sleep negligence is and how dangerous its consequences can actually be.
At every level and in nearly every country, sleep-related problems are proving to be a serious issue. However, despite their horrible effects on every facet of life, these issues are very seldom addressed to the extent they should. The most frustrating aspect of all of this is that most of these issues arise consciously- they come from simple neglect. Sleeping disorders are a genuine issue, but the vast majority of people not getting sufficient sleep aren’t doing so because they simply neglect to do so.
It’s become such a prevalent issue that we are now seeing tangible effects at national levels across the globe. People- even those in comfortable and wealthy nations- are finding themselves sleep-deprived like never before in human history. This is becoming a dangerous trend that’s proving to have tangible effects on anything from productivity and GDP to much more severe things such as overall happiness and livelihood.
It’s time we took a step back to address this issue- both on an individual and larger level. A work-life balance is critical for humans, and sleep is a massive part of that. No matter your position- employer, employee, freelancer, own boss, small business owner, student, or even unemployed- we all stand to gain a lot by seriously and honestly addressing this issue.
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