Attitudes towards sleep deprivation

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.



OSH content developer, IOSH
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  • Thanks for a very insigh

    Permalink Submitted by Nana.Kwarteng-Ababio on 27 January 2020 - 08:43 am

    Thanks for a very insightful article Chris. I have been a keen campaigner of effective fatigue management policies and plans within my organisation and I am glad to have learned the added benefits of sleep to the human body.

    • Hi Nana.Kwarteng-Ababio.

      Permalink Submitted by Chris Burrow (IOSH) on 3 February 2020 - 03:10 pm

      Hi Nana.Kwarteng-Ababio.
      Thank you very much for your kind feedback. I am glad that the article has provided you with some more knowledge to take forward your fatigue management policies and plans. Fatigue is such an important and sometimes miss-understood topic area (and we are all human after all) that it is important for us to keep echoing educational messages out there for all to see and consider.
      The work you are completing, which you have outlined in your comment, is genuinely commendable and inspiring. Please keep up the great work and continue to make a difference.
      I am proud that my first 'opinion-piece article' has had a positive influence.
      Many thanks and kind regards, Chris Burrow.

  • Very informative, but wo

    Permalink Submitted by Serena Merry on 4 February 2020 - 01:30 pm

    Very informative, but would have been nice to see some suggestions or ways of thinking towards helping to get a good nights sleep.

  • Thank you

    Permalink Submitted by Chris Burrow on 13 February 2020 - 09:12 am

    Hi Serena.
    Thank you so much for your kind words and your valuable suggestion. Unfortunately, I had a word restriction associated to the piece. I had a desire to get the impact information across through the article to help OSH professionals to realise the importance of sleep and what the potential outcomes can be.
    I will make a request to write a follow-up article focussing on ways to help one to obtain quality sleep. I have lots of useful information in this area so it would be an absolute pleasure to put forward this suggestion/request.
    I am glad that you enjoyed reading the piece and I will update you on the follow-up article asap.
    Thank you again and for taking the time to comment on my piece. It is truly appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Chris Burrow


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