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Only three in 10 of us get 'enough' sleep, so how can we improve this?

Commute times, shift work and mobile phones all play a role.

Image: Shutterstock/nd3000

SLEEP – EVERYONE NEEDS it, but it’s something most of us don’t get enough of.

It’s common knowledge that adults need between seven to nine hours sleep per night to function at their best. 

However, research from sleep neuroscientist Professor Jim Horne shows that only three in 10 Irish workers get seven to eight hours sleep a night.

A bad night’s sleep can cause memory issues, trouble with thinking and concentration, and daytime fatigue. 

“I’m sure everyone knows that when you get four or five hours sleep the next day you’re just not going to be there as much,” health coach with Zevo Health, JP Hughes, told the latest episode of Ireland 2029

“If you’re not getting enough sleep, you really have issues in letting more memories go into the brain and processing them that night,” he said. 

In work your boss might tell you ‘learn this, remember this, process this piece of information’, but really you’re not able to absorb or process it that day. 

In 2016, a major study was published by the Rand Corporation examining the economic burden of insufficient sleep across five different OECD countries. 

The findings suggested that insufficient sleep can result in large economic costs in terms of lost GDP and lower labour productivity.

It found that on an annual basis, the US loses around 1.2 million working days due to insufficient sleep. Bringing it closer to home, the UK and Germany both lose over 200,000 working days a year. 

How does that impact the countries on an economic level? Some €599 billion is lost each year across the five countries analysed in the study, due to insufficient sleep. 

Sleep pods 

Many companies and universities are beginning to realise the importance of sleep and how it can impact people’s productivity. 

One such place is Maynooth University, which recently became the first university in Ireland to install sleep pods. Students can use these pods to take 20-minute naps to help keep their energy levels up during a busy day at college. 

“I think there were a few raised eyebrows initially because people were concerned about the cost of it but actually they aren’t that expensive. So it’s been really, really popular and they’re really, really heavily used,” Lorna Dodd, head of academic services at Maynooth University, said.

A_MC_1748_PRINT (1) Sleep pods in Maynooth University Source: Aisling McCoy

While Dodd noted that it is too early to tell if the sleep pods have had a real impact on the academic productivity of students, she believes they “definitely improve students’ ability to manage their day and manage how they go through the week and to get a bit more rest than they normally would”.

Sleep pods are just one of many ways people can try to improve their sleeping patterns in order to become more productive. 

Boosting GDP 

In this week’s episode of our Ireland 2029 podcast, we look at whether the Irish nation could be trained to sleep better – and if this would boost GDP in the process.

Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t just important for workers and university students. It’s important for people of all ages. 

The Rand study noted that sleep deprivation among children and adolescents may trigger irreversible long-term consequences. It said that there is strong evidence to link the quality and quantity of sleep with school performance and cognitive ability among school-aged children and adolescents. 

Sleep expert Lucy Wolfe told us schools in other countries which implemented a later start time have seen improvement in students’ academic scores.

Dodd noted, however, that it’s not always feasible to have later start times for schools. “I’m not sure that working parents would really appreciate that,” Dodd said, adding that she would like to see sleep pods being introduced in schools. 

Impact of a long commute 

When it comes to businesses, Hughes thinks that flexible starting hours are a good idea and pointed out that commute times can impact sleep quality. 

The latest CSO data shows that the average commute for those at work rose in 2016 to 28.2 minutes. Counties bordering Dublin had the longest average commuting time. Among workers living in Meath and Wicklow, it took, on average, nearly 35 minutes to travel to work, while Kildare commuters took just under 34 minutes.

“If our commutes are longer that means we’re getting up earlier, we’re getting home later and there’s been research showing that when commutes go on past the 60-minute mark each way, we’re looking at about 16 minutes [sleep] loss in that night,” Hughes said. 

He suggested that if work hours were made more flexible in order to help people avoid rush hour traffic, commute times could be shortened and, in turn, have an impact on people’s sleep quality. 

“Being flexible is a huge thing that companies can do straight away,” Hughes said. 

Shift work

Not all employers are in a position to offer their staff more flexible start times. For example, airports have no choice but to open early in the morning and close late at night, and hospitals must be staffed at all times. 

So, what can be done to help boost productivity among shift workers? Hughes said healthy sleeping can be difficult, depending on the shifts. 

Shift work can be inherently unhealthy, so it’s really important to start from that standpoint and understand that long term there is an increased risk of things like breast cancer, skin cancer, for people working shift work.

From there, Hughes said it’s important to try to get to sleep after a shift is finished, rather than staying up for hours. 

“A lot of people go to the gym and exercise and try to take advantage of being around for the day but that’s possibly not the best idea,” he said. 

Don’t shift too much when the weekend comes around, trying to catch up with your friends because they’re on a different schedule. Your body clock can’t shift dramatically over the course of one night, so you can’t just suddenly decide ‘I’m going to live a normal lifestyle’.

The US National Sleep Foundation provides detailed advice for people who work shifts. 

Some of its suggestions include: 

  • Avoid long commutes and extended hours
  • Take short nap breaks throughout the shift
  • Work with others to help keep you alert
  • Try to be active during breaks
  • Don’t leave the most tedious or boring tasks to the end of your shift when you are apt to feel the drowsiest
  • Exchange ideas with your colleagues on ways to cope with the problems of shift work

Changing Ireland’s sleep

So, is it possible to train the Irish nation to sleep better and, in turn, increase GDP? 

Well, as noted above, more and more companies are beginning to realise the importance of sleep hygiene and good sleep habits. 

For example, just like Maynooth University, tech company Accenture has introduced sleep pods in its Dublin offices. Many companies are also hiring health coaches like Hughes to provide educational talks to their staff. 

But many companies have yet to get on board. 

Hughes explained why it’s important that employers begin to take notice: 

They should care because it has a huge impact on productivity and absenteeism. What they can do is they can first see what the barriers are to why their employees aren’t sleeping. If it’s to commute or if it’s something completely different. 

“Then, they can provide guidance. So they can get people to come in, do talks, do trainings and that’s becoming more and more popular. 

“From there, you can analyse and see if it’s actually leading to productivity increases or not and adapt accordingly.” 

Even if businesses and schools began to take more notice of the importance of sleep, Hughes said the responsibility also lies on individuals to make a change.

“The buck stops with the employees because … your boss can’t tell you to get into bed at a certain time, really, so they can only give guidance and the flexibility around hours and these sorts of things, but then individuals need to have that understanding of why it is important so they’ll actually do it themselves,” Hughes said.

I think if you start from an individual basis and look at everyone and give them the understanding of what is and how to get a really good night’s sleep, we can start from there. 

From there, he added, business should try to be more flexible in terms of starting and finishing times, stating: “If you start building that culture in a lot of corporations I think things can very quickly change.”

You can listen to the fourth episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:

Full list of providers here 


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

Is training people to sleep better a good idea for businesses and colleges?

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