How much is sleep deprivation costing you?

Thursday, May 20, 2004
Counting the Cost
In today’s society, job demands are forcing an increasing number of work people to operate well beyond the design specifications of the human brain and body. Today’s workforce are expected to undertake exhausting schedules, whisk across multiple time zones, and work long days. Often suffering from the debilitating effects of jet lag, these people’s health and performance are put in jeopardy. It is estimated that people are sleeping 20 percent less than they did a century ago. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that 69 percent of people complain of sleeping difficulties. However, due to the lack of public awareness, fewer than 10 to 20 percent actually seek help for it.

Despite popular belief, sleep is not a luxury that can be dispensed with when something more interesting or important comes up, but rather a necessity. According to a report presented to the US Congress on the state of the nation’s sleep health, they found that the direct cost of sleep disorders in the United States in 1990 alone was US$15.9 billion a year. Indirect costs, in terms of productivity and accidents amounted to a staggering US$150 billion a year. It is worth noting that neither figure accounts for intangible costs such as suffering, family dysfunction and loss of human life.

The reckless, kamikaze bravado, “we’ll sleep when we’re dead,” championed by many misinformed organisations, has been a frequent ingredient in many tragic disasters, including the ones below:

  • At midnight on 24 March 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 258,000 barrels of crude oil and causing irreparable damage to both wildlife and the surrounding environment. The cleanup bill amounted to over US$3 billion. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the mate at the helm was described as being too fatigued to perform his duties: “Severely sleep deprived, and apparently asleep on his feet, [he] failed to respond to simple, clear signals to turn the vessel back into the shipping lanes.”

  • At noontime on 28 January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded to the horror of millions of people worldwide. Sleep researchers attribute questionable last-minute evaluations of the reliability of O-ring seals to the insufficient sleep and irregular hours of NASA managers involved in the decision to launch. Two of the three top managers had had less than 3 hours of sleep for the 3 consecutive nights prior to the catastrophic mission.

  • At 1:23 am on 26 April 1986, the reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded. Engineers involved at the time had been at work for 13 hours or more, and totally missed or were confused by waning signals on their control panels.

  • In 1992, George Bush vomited, fainted and slumped to the floor while attending a state dinner in Japan due to jet lag. He became ill on the tenth day of a 26,000 mile trip that had taken him to Australia, Singapore and Korea. His biological clock was still set somewhere in the mid-Pacific and had not yet joined him in Japan. He became just one more victim of the human drive to reach beyond our physiological capacities.

  • In the 1950s, the then secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, flew to Egypt to negotiate a treaty to construct the Aswan Dam. The United States lost the project to the Soviet Union, launching a decade of Soviet influence in Egypt. Dulles, who participated in key meetings almost immediately after his arrival, blamed his jet lag for undermining his performance, and urged that in future, diplomats avoid scheduling important meetings immediately after flying across many time zones.

Although your work schedule may not be as hectic or extreme as the cases mentioned above, even a moderate sleep debt can seriously affect the quality of your life. The research findings are quite clear: sleep loss is devastating to performance and executive decision making.

Here’s what happens when you don’t get enough sleep:

  • DAYTIME DROWSINESS: an inability to function throughout the day without a temporary loss in energy and alertness, particularly during the mid-afternoon trough. Feelings of inattentiveness and grogginess, generally when doing monotonous tasks. Such symptoms can be further exacerbated by heavy meals, low doses of alcohol, sitting in warm rooms, listening to boring lectures, or participating in dull meetings. Again, these factors do not cause sleepiness. They simply unmask the physiological sleepiness already in the body

  • MICROSLEEPS: brief episodes of sleep, lasting a few seconds at a time, which produce inattention and can result in accidents, even death.

  • SLEEP SEIZURES: unintended longer episodes of sleep that occur as rapidly as a seizure without warning, in a severely sleep-deprived person

  • MOOD SHIFTS, INCLUDING DEPRESSION, INCREASED IRRITABILITY AND LOSS OF SENSE OF HUMOUR: mood is one of the first things to be affected by sleep loss. With even minimal sleep loss, our threshold for containing anger is lowered. We can quickly lose friends, anger spouses, upset negotiations, and make enemies.

  • STRESS, ANXIETY, AND LOSS OF COPING SKILLS: overwhelming feelings of not being able to cope, even with simple problems or moderate work loads. Increase in worry, frustration, and nervousness. Inability to maintain perspective, or to relax under even moderate pressure.

  • DIMINISHED SOCIAL SKILLS:wanting to avoid group participation or interacting with others owing to fatigue. Desire to disengage from the outside world.

  • WEIGHT GAIN: consumption of beverages and foods high in sugar content used as an aid to staying awake when sleep-deprived. Some people attempt to reduce anxiety or boredom through eating.

  • FEELINGS OF BEING CHILLED: often the result of trying to stay awake very late at night, after the circadian rhythm ebbs and causes body temperature to plummet.

  • REDUCED IMMUNITY TO DISEASE AND VIRAL INFECTION: the body’s natural killer immune cells stop functioning as sleep deprivation increases.

  • FEELINGS OF LETHARGY: loss of motivation to maintain present tasks or pursue new endeavours.

  • REDUCED PRODUCTIVITY: reduction in cognitive functioning and reaction time, including the following:
    • Reduced ability to concentrate
    • Reduced ability to remember (especially short-term memory)
    • Reduced ability to handle complex tasks
    • Reduced ability to think logically
    • Reduced ability to think critically
    • Reduced executive decision making skills
    • Reduced vocabulary and communication skills
    • Reduced creativity
    • Reduced motor skills and coordination
    • Reduced perceptual skills

    We often become completely oblivious of our impaired ability to function as we grow increasingly accustomed to low levels of alertness. Many of us have been sleepy for such a long time that we don’t know what it’s like to feel wide-awake. Only when we’re exhausted and/or fall asleep at inappropriate times are we seriously reminded of the body’s fundamental need for sleep.

    ©2003 Sleep & Chest Disorders Centre

    For more information, visit www.sleepcentre.com.au


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