Human beings are the only species that make a conscious decision to miss out on sleep because we don’t see it as being a productive use of our time. If something has to be sacrificed in our hectic lives, it tends to be a good night’s sleep.
Yet getting the right amount of sleep is fundamentally important for our general wellbeing, our psychological and physiological health and consequently our safety. OSH professionals should take note because our attitudes towards sleep and how our employers approach this essential activity requires us to change our thinking.
Sleep loss can have catastrophic effects on our bodies. Take the impact on the cardiovascular system. In the US, when clocks go forward during springtime and people have one less hour of sleep, there is a 24% increase in heart attacks (plus a spike in road traffic accidents and suicide rates) the next day . There is also a 21% decrease in heart attacks (and other health-related incidents) when clocks go back, and an extra hour of sleep is gained during the autumn. The impact of these changes on our bodies demonstrates how important sleep is for our health and how effectively we complete tasks.
The immune system is also affected by fluctuations in sleep patterns. Lymphocytes (white blood cells) identify unwanted and harmful intruders in the body such as cancerous tumours and destroy them. When sleep is deprived, the number of these cells decrease.
In fact, studies show that if you only manage four hours’ sleep at night the cell activity falls by an alarming 70%. This illustrates the link between sleep deprivation and the risk of developing cancers.
Sleep deprivation distorts genes within human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). It impacts on gene activity, which shapes the immune system and leads to poorer health. Surprisingly, some genes become more active, but these are associated with the advancement of tumours, chronic bodily inflammation, cardiovascular disease and stress.
Disrupted sleep patterns can also lead to (or make worse) mental ill-health symptoms such as depression or anxiety. Poor sleep is also linked with the development of Alzheimer’s, obesity and diabetes. To put it bluntly: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life expectancy is likely to be.
Sleep is also crucial for learning and memory consolidation. When we manage to gain a ‘full’ night’s sleep, our brain is able to process and retain new information more successfully. This essential activity is disrupted when people are deprived of sleep. As a result, anything new that has been learned is less likely to be committed to memory. Humans also need enough sleep to help prepare the brain so it can process effectively.
The level of sleep deprivation in society is unprecedented. Our bodies are ‘paying the price’ from a lack of sleep and the effects are reflected in the workplace. Employers could do a lot more to raise awareness. With employers emphasising the importance of getting enough sleep among staff, employees will improve their concentration and attention levels, which in turn will lead to better decisions and, in turn, improved production.
We should all remember that sleep is a non-negotiable and fundamental biological necessity.