Want 20 minutes more sleep each day? Start work an hour later.

sleep and workIn modern society we are faced with many challenges, but one of the most difficult is balancing time. How much do we allocate to work, sleep and leisure and what are the costs or effects of those trade-offs? Important research published in the journal Sleep from David Dinges’ team at University of Pennsylvania gives us helpful insights to guide these decisions. By analysing the work habits and effects on sleep in over 120,000 Americans who participated in the American Time Use Survey they have been able to look at work and demographic factors that impact on sleep.

What are the main factors that impact on sleep?

Research from the American Time Use Survey showed that the main factors impacting sleep (defined as an increased risk of sleeping less than 6 hours per night) were:

  • Being of working age (25-64 years old) – 38% increase
  • Being male – 27% increase
  • Having a household income of more than US$150,000 – 16% increase
  • Working multiple jobs – 61% increase

Listening to Prof David Dinges talk about his research, his impression is that those at each end of the income scale are at the greatest risk of work impacting on sleep:

  • Those on high incomes have a greater incentive to trade off sleep for more hours of work as their ‘reward’ for each hour of work is high
  • Those on low incomes have little choice but to trade off sleep to work a second or third job, as their hourly rates are so low, that they need to work a lot of hours to make ends meet

Compared to people sleeping more than 6 hours per night, those who slept less than 6 hours per night:

  • Worked an additional 1.5 hours
  • Commuted for 24 minutes more

What can be done?

The research also showed that earlier work or school start times are associated with significantly shorter sleep times. For every hour later work or school starts, people average 20 minutes more sleep. This together with the other factors that impact on sleep, gives some guidance on what can be done to reduce the impact of work on sleep.

What can individuals do?

The main thing an individual can do is to recognise the importance of sleep for good physical and mental health and maintaining optimal performance at work. For many people, sleep is seen as something that can be traded off for more hours of work, and sleep is often not given the respect it deserves in business circles. However, this thinking is changing, being challenged by the likes of Arianna Huffington, who had her own health problems from lack of sleep, and is now a self-declared sleep evangelist. Her book Sleep Revolution highlights the importance of sleep. Rather than setting that alarm early to put in an extra hour of work, think about getting more sleep.

But, for some people sleep doesn’t come easily. Despite allowing enough time for sleep, they can have trouble switching off at night and develop insomnia. It can become a difficult balance of recognising the importance of sleep, but not getting overly concerned about not being able to get to sleep. If this is the situation, people should talk to their health professional and may be referred to a sleep specialist to investigate and manage their insomnia.

What can regulators, government or employers do?

These findings highlight a number of factors that can be adjusted to help with sleep:

  • Later start times for work or school – In this research, for each hour later that work or school started, people had 20 minutes more sleep. Particularly for teenagers, later school start times can help reduce the amount of sleep deprivation and lost sleep
  • Investing in infrastructure and systems to reduce commuting times – reducing commuting times can help to provide more opportunity for sleep. This can be done by having people work closer to home or from home and improving transport infrastructure
  • Reduce incentives or need for extra work – penalty rates for work over and above usual working hours rightly compensate workers for additional work they may be asked to do, but also provide an incentive for people to work extra hours instead of sleeping. In the European Union, laws have been passed banning work beyond 48 hours per week. Ensuring minimum hourly rates of pay are adequate to support people is also important to reduce the need to work second and third jobs.

This research provides a rich, evidence-based source of information that can be used to inform decisions about how we allocate our personal time. Importantly it also provides an important framework for business and government to design systems, workplaces and recommendations that promote sleep and health.

Related posts and links

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