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Work sleep repeat

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Between work, tech and the demands of modern society, sleepers the world over can't get a decent night's kip. Is there a way of putting the issue to bed?

Words by Julie Farrell and illustration by Ollie Silvester.

Sleep has become an international currency. Traded away for productive working hours and the pounds in our pocket, the sleep exchange offers material riches, but reduces our social wealth, and more urgently, our health.

In 2015, a new app, Entrain, designed to help you beat jetlag, collected data from thousands of participants, recording their circadian rhythms, sleeping habits, lighting and mood.

The data provided an alarming insight into sleeping patterns across the globe. Japan fared worst with a six hour average sleep, contrasting with the more appealing eight-and-a-half hours of Spain. The findings suggested that the world is facing a crisis of disturbed sleep due to working practices, new technologies and, most worryingly, a perceived link between in cultures across the world between sleeplessness and inner strength.

Studies have shown sleep patterns to have changed dramatically since the end of the industrial era – and not necessarily due to longer working hours. Although labour unions in the early 20th century fought long and hard for the eight hour working day, preventing employers from stealing working time from the sleeping hours of their staff, working practices haven't kept pace with society. At the same time, the standardisation of sleep patterns has left little room for manoeuvre as night owls and morning larks alike are caught out by a one-size-fits-all system.

“We're waking up to a crisis of disturbed sleep, due to working practices, new technologies and the idea that sleeplessness and inner strength are linked.”

In workaholic Japan, sleeplessness has been prized for decades. The word inemuri, which translates as 'present while sleeping', describes the act of napping at work. During the last World War, longer working days were encouraged as a show of patriotism - and as the years went by and the Japanese economy grew, the act of sleeping on duty, during the commute or at social gatherings became a sign of diligence among the career-minded.

It seems this mindset has migrated. Sleeplessness is now seen as an act of self-discipline and a reflection of perceived value in workplaces around the world. And now that technology has given us access to our work around the clock, there’s no excuse not to be pushing on. How often have you overheard punters and public figures boasting about how few hours they manage to grab, so busy and so needed they are at their jobs? I’ve heard countless colleagues rattling off their deprived sleep quota. Churchill and Thatcher famously got just four hours of sleep per night; a sure sign, they said, of their dedication. Richard Branson gets a marginally more human five-hours. Barack Obama's tally is slightly better with six, and it might make a lot of sense to learn that the current president takes as few as three hours of sleep a night.

Technology companies are savvy to these attitudes – and they play a role in reinforcing them. Reese Hastings, CEO of Netflix, recently shed light on their biggest competitor. Your immediate thoughts might jump to Amazon, YouTube or the BBC, but you’d be far from the mark. Netflix’s nemesis? Sleep. If we're awake, we're ready to consume. Whether at work or at play, our being conscious has become one of the most valuable commodities in the developed world.

It isn’t a new idea. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both subscribed to the notion that wakefulness allowed one to stay ahead of the competition. Edison himself said that he saw no reason why anyone should go to bed at all, limiting himself to a stingy four hours a night.

The World Health Organisation cites several health issues resulting from sleep deprivation - namely irritability, reduced cognitive function, a four-fold increase in the risk of stroke, increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and impaired judgement.

Studies have shown productivity has been steadily decreasing since the digital boom, due to the frequent interruptions that occur via devices and the toxic idea we can access our work round the clock. We’re running on empty, when everyone knows we’re much more productive after a good night’s sleep. According to the Harvard Business Review, even after a decent sleep our concentration declines after just a couple of hours’ work, where a short break or switching to a new task can refresh it. Our focus will eventually wane if we push it for too long, resulting in poorer decision making and a reduced ability to collaborate.

“Whether at work or at play, our being conscious has become one of the most valuable commodities in the developed world.”

Our brain naturally wants to regularly shift between a focused and an unfocused state in order to function optimally; daydreaming has been shown to boost creativity and re-energize the brain (though if it’s a creative pursuit you’re undertaking, a ninety minute nap is the best refresher.)

But there has been a notable shift, and people are now making a concerted effort to re-address the work-life-sleep balance. Authors Matt Haig and Ruby Wax have brought mindfulness and mental illness to the forefront of public awareness, writing about the pitfalls of the technological era we’re moving into. Haig believes that mental health issues are cultural reactions to social media and technology. He says that “sleep is seen as anti-business or anti-work”. Both authors are asking society to take a good look at the impact of work and tech on the quality of their lives.

We’re beginning to understand that we’re not machines and shouldn’t be expected to function like them. Technologies and lifestyles have developed out of sync with our working patterns - and something has to give. We need to let go of the old heroes – whose once-shiny badges have long since tarnished. Instead we should look to ingenious pioneers like Einstein: he clocked ten hours every night, and still had ample time to change the world.


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