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$ZZZZZ: How much is our sleep deprivation costing us?

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By Chris Colin, Contributor

The other day my six-year-old daughter asked me if I prefer being awake or asleep. I lied and said awake, so as to suggest she has a normal, healthy human father. 

She does not. Hasn’t for two-and-a-half years, ever since her little brother came on the scene and proceeded to fill the pre-dawn hours with an unceasing, earsplitting Rebel yell. The kid is a rotten sleeper and, through the associative property, has killed our sleep, too.

The sleep deprivation rained down upon my wife and me warped our personalities and notions of goodness ages ago. What’s new, or at least newly realized in our home, is how sleeplessness is impacting us professionally. That last sentence? It took me four hours and three mini-naps to compose it. Worse is the compounding effect. We stay up later at night to finish the work we were too tired to finish during the day, and as a result get even less sleep, and so on. 

We’re not the only ones. Humans appear to be sleeping less and less, and it’s getting worse. With what remains of my brain, I started to wonder about the broader economic impact of sleeplessness. According to the New York Times, an Australian study calculated the cost of sleeplessness to be 0.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — and that was from research that focused on a limited band of physical and medical consequences. What’s more, that was before smartphones began drawing us out of slumber and into a screen-lit insomnia. The true economic costs of our sleep deprivation could be quite high indeed. 

One study, from National Academies Press, has attempted to lay out the stakes: 

“The public health consequences of sleep loss, night work, and sleep disorders are far from benign. Some of the most devastating human and environmental health disasters have been partially attributed to sleep loss and night shift work-related performance failures, including the tragedy at the Bhopal, India, chemical plant; the nuclear reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; as well as the grounding of the Star Princess cruise ship and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.” 

I do hope I don’t ground an oil tanker. How humiliating. But even short of that, I worry for the path we’re on. The casual intertwining of tech and sleep, in particular, seems like a doozy of a habit to unwind. Sure, we turn to our phones when we can’t sleep, thereby extending our insomnia. But more ingrained and troubling is how our devices extend our expectation of productivity. The ability to get work done from anywhere didn’t end up limiting our time in the office. It brought the office to everywhere. 

Our near-constant working creates more work for someone else in our work world — more emails requiring replies, etc. — and that person’s extra work piles it on for the next person. Pretty soon it’s 10 p.m. and you need that episode of “True Detective” on your laptop to wash the work taste out of your mouth, and then maybe a little Facebook before bed, which reminds you of that one last email to dash off, and pretty soon it’s time to attend to the screaming child in the next room. Someone who’s not tired should crunch the numbers around where all of this is heading.

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