Find yourself reaching for another cup of coffee in the afternoon to stay alert? (Check.) Forgetful, irritable or depressed? (Check.) Can't control your appetite? (Check.) If this is you, you may be one of the tens of millions of Americans suffering from insufficient sleep.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but more than a third of us fall short. The agency has declared insufficient and chronic lack of sleep a public health epidemic.
Various apps, gadgets and supplements have sprung up to serve the bleary-eyed masses, ranging from high-tech sleep trackers and apps (read our sleep wearables roundup) to oddball solutions (see: lettuce water).
“The amount of nightly sleep that individuals obtain has been decreasing since the invention of the light bulb," says Kimberly Fenn, an associate professor at Michigan State University's Sleep & Learning Lab.
Thomas Edison's invention was just the first in a steady stream of technological innovations that have rewired modern life. Television, air travel and smartphones have entertained us and made us more productive, but the always-on lifestyle they have created has upended our natural daily rhythms and a millennia’s worth of sleep habits.
There are deeper economic trends at work, too. Americans are busier than ever – some forced to commute long hours for low paying jobs, moonlight at second (or third) jobs to make ends meet and then serve as caregivers for children or elderly family members.
And it's not just frontline collar workers. At highly coveted workplaces, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, there is often a culture of overwork. This issue spilled into the open in March of this year after a presentation created by a group of first-year bankers leaked onto social media. The group of employees worked for Goldman Sachs and documented how their 100-hour work weeks resulted in serious burnout. The presentation sparked a debate about the unreasonable demands put on junior employees and prompted the bank to ease some demands on them.
The toll of our go-go work ethic was evident in The Hartford's 2021 Future of Benefits Pulse Survey, where close to two-thirds of workers reported experiencing burnout at work.
The COVID-19 pandemic was another wake-up call. Work-from-home setups meant some people were able to sleep more. For others, especially frontline health care workers, the stress of the pandemic led to chronic sleep disturbances, or what's been called “coronasomnia."
A third of Americans aged 65 and older, a demographic that tends to report more sleep issues than the general population in normal times, reported an increase in sleep problems since the pandemic hit.1
Another consequence of the pandemic: an increase in deliveries. Since people began relying on online ordering, more delivery trucks and vans were being dispatched than ever before, sending overworked and round-the-clock drivers onto the roads. Mark Beaumont, technical manager for commercial auto with The Hartford's Risk Engineering division, explained.
The polling firm Gallup has tracked the national drift towards drowsiness. In 1942, 84% of Americans reported getting at least the minimum recommended 7 hours of sleep a night. Today, that number is down to 60%. And as you may have guessed, the most sleep-deprived groups are parents of young children and lower-income Americans.2
According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Community Health, the most sleep-deprived groups by industry are protective service and military (50%), health care support occupations (45%), transport and material moving (41%) and production occupations (41%).3
“People are not deliberately sacrificing sleep," says Fenn. “It is simply just the easiest aspect of their lives to cut out."
Michael V. Vitiello, a professor with the University of Washington and an expert in sleep, circadian rhythms and sleep disorders in aging adds: “You may gain a few hours here and there, but down the line you may well pay for it, not just in day-to-day functioning, but in compromising your health."
Sleep Impacts Health, Safety and Performance
Medical and public health officials have only recently come to terms with the magnitude of the problem. Insufficient sleep over a prolonged period is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental health issues. A particularly alarming new large-scale study suggests that people who get insufficient sleep in their 50s and 60s may be more likely to develop dementia when they are older.4
Lack of sleep can also impact cognitive performance, leading to lower work productivity, errors and accidents. And according to Dr. Mark Williams, a medical director with The Hartford, 13% of all workplace injuries can be attributed to sleep problems.