Pillow talk

New research finds we are sleeping less than ever with consequences for our health, wellbeing and family life. How and why did we lose the ability to get a good night’s sleep? Sarah Womack investigates.

Sleepless woman31 March 2011

Has the UK become a nation of insomniacs? New research suggests that it has, with 26 per cent of those who work in excess of 48 hours a week sleeping for less than six hours a night. Founding Father of the US Benjamin Franklin may have claimed that 'fatigue was the best pillow', but the longer the working day, the worse a person's sleep becomes, both in length and quality.

These are the findings of an Understanding Society study tracking the lives of 100,000 people in 40,000 British households, published by the ESRC. It says that while exhaustion may set in after a week of nine-hour days at the office, the chances of restorative sleep become increasingly elusive.

One in ten men (11 per cent) and one in seven women (14 per cent) working 48 hours a week now sleeps for less than six hours a night – two hours less than the recommended amount. Poor sleep quality is also experienced by nearly a third of women [31 per cent] working 48 hours or more a week, while a quarter of women working 31-48 hours per week complain of the same.

For research on sleep, academics drew in part on responses from 15,098 adults and stated that sleep was 'clearly an area of concern for public health and public policy'. The situation is so significant that some experts have called for a public health strategy to help prevent sleep problems, on a par with campaigns on alcohol and smoking.

Lack of sleep has many bad health effects, they say, including obesity, hypertension and diabetes. It has been attributed to raising the chances of a woman getting breast cancer by as much as 60 per cent, because melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain during sleep to regulate the body's internal clock, plays a key role in preventing breast tumours by suppressing the amount of oestrogen that is released.

Academics in the UK and Italy recently claimed that sleeping less than six hours a night increased the risk of early death, with people who regularly had this little sleep becoming 12 per cent more likely to die over a period of 25 years or less, than those who got the recommended six to eight hours.

The sleep deficit also contributes to productivity slumps, caused by sickness absence and accidents. The current sleep shortfall is estimated to cost employers eight million sick days a year compared with just more than three million in 2008.

Dr Mark Bryan, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) based at the University of Essex, who conducted some of the Understanding Society research on sleep, said one important factor in whether people slept well was job satisfaction. "People who are completely dissatisfied with their job – and this may be because they are fearful of losing that job, or cannot find another one in a contracting jobs market – sleep badly and for shorter hours. An economic upturn may generate better sleep patterns if people become happier at work."

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