And yet most people are still not getting enough of it. Why does sleep get such a rough deal, falling victim to episode after episode of Killing Eve, to work, to online shopping, to Skyping friends whose day is just beginning? Why is the global population – 56% in Japan, 45% in the US, 35% in the UK and 30% in Germany, according to a 2013 National Federation of Sleep study – getting less than the recommended minimum of seven hours? Dr Katharina Lederle, author of Sleep Sense, and head of sleep services at Somnia, a start-up that works with people experiencing poor slumber, says it’s because of technology, work, 24-hour living – and because people steal from Peter with the intention of paying Paul, Paola and Pablo, and end up robbing them all.
“We’re constantly trying to fit more into each day, doubling up on tasks in an attempt to boost our productivity. Ever since artificial light was invented, we’ve been able to defy nature’s fabulous mechanism for forcing us to stop whatever we’re doing and go to bed. “Now we try to stretch our day into night because we haven’t enough hours in the day. We eat at our desks, listen to books while we’re on the go because we haven’t time to read, and even try to exercise while working, with treadmill desks. When it comes to sleep, we’re faced with a mono-task activity. There’s nothing else we can do while sleeping, so we try to do without, to the detriment of all else – our health, our families, and of course the companies we work for.”
The statistics speak for themselves. In 2016, a study by research organisation Rand Europe reported that sleep-deprived workers were costing the world’s economies billions per year in terms of working days lost to lower productivity. Topping the list was the US, with 1.2 million working days lost per year, equating to $441bn (£346.4bn), 2.28% of GDP. Then came Japan at 600,000 days; and Germany and the UK, both at just over 200,000 days. And drowsiness can cost more than money: studies commissioned by the Department of Transport some years ago implicated tiredness in one out of six crashes resulting in death or injury, while in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CORR] estimates that 6,000 fatalities per year are caused by tired drivers.
Human error was also cited as the cause of the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Challenger and Exxon Valdez disasters. Though researchers couldn’t unequivocally blame fatigue, their summation stated that “sleep-related factors appear to be involved in widely disparate types of disasters”, highlighting the fact that engineers at Chernobyl had been working for 13 hours; Three Mile Island occurred at 4am; those involved in launching Challenger had only slept for two hours; and the crew on Exxon Valdez had done a 22-hour shift. Ability to function deteriorates with poor sleep.
As Vicki Culpin, professor of occupational behaviour for Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School and author of The Business of Sleep, points out: “The deleterious effects of not getting enough quality sleep are quite profound. Even 60 to 90 minutes less than we need can reduce our alertness by 32%.” S kip a whole night, says Culpin, who is campaigning for societal change on how we view sleep, and more serious incapacity results. “Our ability to form new memories, to make good decisions and to think creatively suffers quite badly. Add to this the negative impact on self-awareness, on the ability to regulate mood and read micro facial expressions and you end up with someone who is not only making bad calls, but who is incapable of reading the cues that might alert them that their judgement is way off beam.”
And nearly a third of staff turn up to work in this state. For decades sleep deprivation and the problems it was causing individuals, organisations and economies went unacknowledged. It was like an invisible, global virus, spreading through every layer of society, wreaking havoc, while something else was taking the blame. As Culpin says, it’s the equivalent of paying three people but having only two of them doing anything productive. Faced with this stark reality, businesses are finally beginning to take notice of what their sleep-deprived workforce is costing them and examining what they should do about it. “I’m delighted to see that lack of sleep is now being recognised as the serious issue it is,” says Culpin. “Newspapers and magazines in the UK are now giving it coverage in some way but we need to put what we know into practice. This has to start with ditching both the mistaken belief that being present at work equals being productive, and the guilt so many of us feel when we leave work on time or ignore work emails at the weekend.”
Lederle agrees that companies have to lead the way: “I’d like to see CEOs and heads of state publicly state that they need eight hours to function properly. For years we’ve had world leaders and the likes of Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer telling us the opposite. We need to reverse that.” As well as doing better business with a well-slept workforce, industry is recognising that there’s money in sleep, giving rise to a glut of companies offering products to help people nod off, including high-tech bedding and nightwear, pillow sprays, apps, monitors, smart alarm clocks that simulate dusk and dawn light, and even a “breathing” robot called Somnox, which uses somnolent “Buddhist techniques”.
According to a 2017 Mckinsey report, the sleep aid market is now worth between $30bn (£23.7bn) and $40bn (£31.5bn), and “offers robust investment opportunities for private equity firms and growth opportunities over the next several years”. In fact, McKinsey’s figures may be conservative: BCC Research estimates that the market will hit $76.7bn (£85.3bn) by 2019, while Presient & Strategic Intelligence predicts that it will “attain revenue of $101.9bn (£80.3bn) by 2023.” By far the largest segment in this market, and one that BCC Research forecasts will grow to $34.1bn (£26.9bn) by 2019, is mattresses and pillows. Awardladen, global giant Casper has won Time magazine’s Best Innovation and is the Which? and Indy Best Buy for its mattresses and is one of the fastest growing consumer brands of all time. Launched in 2014, the company is already in profit and has been valued at $750m (£592.5m): in 2017 alone, it did more than $200m (£158m) of business, recently expanding its range to include bedding, furniture and dog beds.
“Some people probably spend more time choosing what they’ll have for dinner than they do on their mattress, yet it’s one of the most important aids to good sleep available,” says co-founder and European MD Constantin Eis. “Our 40-strong team of engineers and sleep professionals went through more than 150 prototypes before we launched, testing them for all the factors that might prevent someone from getting a good rest, including pressure points, temperature and breathability. Our Casper mattress uses four layers of foam, with minimum sinkage and high airflow. And we give a 100-day, full refund trial, so that people can fully test it for themselves.”
Not surprisingly, Casper is one of a new breed of companies that is recognising sleep as a pillar of wellness and rewarding employees who maintain a healthy lifestyle. All staff receive a full suite of Casper sleep products and are allowed to sleep in once a month; there are nap pods in its offices and weekly yoga and meditation at its headquarters. Google, too, has pods, while Ben & Jerry’s and Nike have nap rooms in their head office and Proctor & Gamble has lighting systems that regulate melatonin, the sleep hormone. Christopher Lindholst is CEO of MetroNaps, and the brains behind the EnergyPod, “the world’s first chair designed for napping in the workplace”, according to its website, which holds the body in a perfect “zero-gravity” position.
Lindhoist launched his business in 2013 and has seen it grow by 30% since then, with hospitals, universities, banks, airlines and sports clubs among his key customers. “Humans experience two periods of increased fatigue in a day,” says Lindholst. “The greatest is between 1am and 4am – that’s when we are at our most drowsy – but we also dip in the afternoon, between 1pm and 3pm. This is when a short nap – about 20 minutes is optimum – can boost productivity, mood and wellbeing. Having said that, our data shows that EnergyPods are being used throughout the day, often before people drive home.” Lindholst says there’s much more that employers can do to promote healthy sleep practices among their workforce – among them shutting down transmission of emails at night – but until that happens, products like his certainly benefit employees. Jonathan Cridland, a former accountant, is CEO of Lumie, which has recently introduced a range of desk lamps to combat the afternoon dip in alertness.
Though the company started by making lamps to treat seasonal affective disorder – still a vital part of its business – it went on to invent other products for the sleep-deprived, including the Lumie Bodyclock range of dawn and dusk simulator alarm clocks, which helps regulate the wake/sleep pattern, and the desk lights to boost energy and productivity during the day. “Humans are diurnal creatures, but our normal patterns are now completely disrupted by artificial light,” says Cridland.
“This is not a new thing – it goes back several generations – and there’s certainly no turning back the clock. What we can do, though, is use knowledge and technology to improve the situation, to regulate circadian rhythms – roughly speaking, the biological clock, which typically runs slightly longer than 24 hours, but is reset by light. Circadian rhythms together with the sleep homeostat, which tracks how long we have slept and been awake for, are key in determining the need to sleep. Our Bodyclock sleep and wake-up lights use light to set the internal clock each morning, and have a fading sunset setting for evening to help people relax into sleep.”
Cridland has seen Lumie’s business double over the past five years, with very healthy growth in the UK and across Europe and, like other innovators in the field, is looking forward to a buoyant future. But while products are all well and good, and undoubtedly help, the fact remains that they are not the answer to endemic tiredness. To address this, a multiple-pronged approach is required, says Culpin. “There is a need for education, starting at school and working right up to government, because this needs policy support. If we go back to the seatbelt campaign, drink driving or smoking in public places, all were backed by policy change that rendered them ‘unacceptable’. We need to think holistically, from education through to organisational policies, through to national implementation of laws. That really is the only way to beat this.”