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Why Lack of Sleep Is Costing Us Billions of Dollars

If you're sleep-deprived on the job, you risk hurting the economy — and yourself.
Image: Sleep
The United States is the global leader in economic losses from bad sleep habits.John Brecher / for NBC News

Everyone wishes they could get more done in a day, but there are extenuating circumstances, personal weaknesses, and sometimes, random factors that get in the way of us achieving our highest levels of productivity. You might experience a bit of extra stress, give in to a few extra distractions and deal with a finnicky internet connection on any given day, but there’s one factor that rises above the others in terms of its collective role in sabotaging our productivity — and it’s costing us a cumulative $411 billion in productivity losses.

Sleep Deprivation Is Hurting Our Economy

RAND Europe, a non-profit organization, realized what most of us know intrinsically — bad sleep habits have a negative impact on work performance — but researchers wanted to quantify the effects. They found that a person who, on average, sleeps less than 6 hours a night has a 13 percent higher risk of mortality than a counterpart sleeping 7 to 9 hours a night.

On top of that, they found that the United States was the global leader in economic losses from bad sleep habits, losing approximately 2.92 percent of its total GDP due to sleep deprivation. That’s a whopping $411 billion of lost productivity, or approximately 1.2 million working days per year.

Sleep-deprived individuals have reaction times about 50 percent slower than their well-rested counterparts, and are more likely to make mistakes on simple tasks.

How Bad Sleep Affects Our Performance on the Job

How can sleep have such a big impact on our productivity? After all, most of us have long given up on getting a consistent 8 hours a night. But it turns out neglecting sleep has a multitude of negative consequences, all of which can affect our work performance:

  • Accuracy and cognitive speed. Even slight amounts of sleep deprivation can affect your cognitive performance similar to the effects of alcohol. Sleep-deprived individuals have reaction times about 50 percent slower than their well-rested counterparts, and are more likely to make mistakes on simple tasks. Those mistakes and lost bits of time add up.
  • Focus and memory. Sleep deprivation is also tied to problems with focus, memory and other complex cognitive functions. It is directly or indirectly responsible for not only thousands of traffic accidents and minor problems, but global disasters, including the Chernobyl meltdown, the Challenger explosion and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. To perform at your best, you need to be able to focus on your core responsibilities and rely on your short-term memory.
  • Physical health. Poor sleep habits can and will weaken your immune system, and leave you more prone to a host of different physical health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity. That means you’ll be taking more sick days, or performing at an impaired level when you do show up for work.

6 Strategies to Make Sleep a Priority

So what can you do about your own personal sleep habits?

  • Make your sleep schedule a priority. First and foremost, you need to make your sleep a top priority. Sleep isn’t something to cram into the last bits of the day; it’s something to schedule, like you would anything else. There are few tasks and responsibilities that can’t wait until the next day, so cut yourself off early and get those extra hours of rest.
  • Invest in a better mattress. The type of mattress you have can significantly affect your sleep quality; this is one area you don’t want to skimp. Research the different types of mattresses that are out there, and find the best fit for you. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make.
  • Stop staying up late. If you’re like most American professionals, you stay up late catching up on emails and doing other online work. Unfortunately, that added stress and exposure to blue light can interfere with your ability to wind down for the day — so stop working a few hours before you go to bed.
  • Get up at the same time every day. Even if you can’t get the full 7 to 9 hours, try to get up at the same time every morning. This will help you find consistency in your sleep, leading to fuller sleep cycles and an easier time waking up and feeling alert.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle. Simple changes, such as eating healthier foods, exercising regularly and cutting back on caffeine and alcohol can all improve your ability to sleep. This may take some extra time, but it will help you sleep better — and more importantly, you’ll feel better.
  • Find an outlet for your stress. Excessive stress can make anyone an insomniac. Find an outlet, whether it’s physical exercise, yoga, meditation or just more personal time to enjoy.

You may not notice the difference immediately, but once you start sleeping more consistently, and in full, you’ll be able to accomplish more every day — more than enough to make up for the time you’ll spend getting those few extra hours. Maintaining a better sleep schedule isn’t impossible, no matter how busy you are, and even small changes can make a big impact in your performance. Stop making excuses and start getting more sleep.

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