How well did you sleep last night?
In fact, don’t answer. I can probably guess. If you’re reading this on your morning commute, it’s likely that you still haven’t quite woken up yet, and are waiting for that shot of caffeine to kick in.
If you’re reading it before bed, however, know that the rays of blue light emitting from your laptop or smartphone screen are not likely to do you any favours as you try to fall asleep tonight.
According to the Great British Bedtime Report by the Sleep Council, Britain is chronically under-sleeping. The vast majority of us (70 per cent) get less far than the recommended eight hours sleep a night, more than a third get less than five, and 27 per cent “experience poor quality sleep on a regular basis”.
This is on my mind right now because I’m reading Why We Sleep, by sleep scientist Matthew Walker.
Or, at least, I was reading it. I had to take a break because the anxiety it has caused as I contemplate the consequences of my own deeply suboptimal sleep patterns started giving me insomnia.
And there are few things as frustratingly ironic as being kept awake into the small hours of the morning due to fear that you are not getting enough sleep.
In all seriousness, Walker’s book is terrifying. The list of health risks associated with poor sleep (basically anything other than getting a full uninterrupted eight hours that enable you to wake up feeling perfectly refreshed) go far beyond a lowered immune system: dementia, depression, heart disease, obesity, schizophrenia, even cancer.
So much for being able to sleep when we’re dead. Carry on like this, and that will happen sooner rather than later.
Good sleep, on the other hand, can apparently improve memory, creativity, productivity, and emotional intelligence.
In other words, if you’re wondering why Britain has become a nation of angry, unproductive slackers incapable of empathy or critical reasoning, our unhealthy sleep habits may be your answer.
What’s interesting is that this is finally hitting the economy. According to Professor Vicki Culpin, psychologist and author of The Business of Sleep, tiredness is responsible for 200,000 lost working days in the UK. Improving our nation’s sleep could apparently save the economy £36bn a year.
Enter the exhaustion industry. Sleep trackers, nap pods, high-tech mattresses, special pillows, herbal remedies, white noise machines, glasses to filter out blue light, meditation apps, sleep coaching… the list of products is endless.
According to McKinsey, the US sleep industry was worth between $30bn and $40bn a year in 2017.
And with British entrants – from Pop & Rest in the City which rents nap rooms by the hour to exhausted workers, to the premium memory foam mattresses made by Eve Sleep whose billboards dominate Tube stations – it’s clear that the UK is following close behind.
The modern business world is stepping up to meet a need we are slowly realising is much greater than we thought. Which is interesting, because it’s the modern business world that is responsible for our sleep crisis in the first place.
I’m not just referring to the impact of being addicted to our smartphones, but to the structure of work in general. Office hours are generally fixed, starting at 9am or before, but sleep patterns vary vastly between individuals.
So-called “morning larks”, the 40 per cent of the population whose circadian rhythm is set for early bedtimes and mornings, may like to feel virtuous, but this is a genetic trait, not something people have any control over.
“Night owls” (myself included) can’t help our late nights – it’s as difficult for us to fall asleep before midnight as it would be for larks to drift off at 5pm.
But our alarms rouse us at the same time to get us into the office, meaning – according to Walker – that owls lose hours of sleep each night, affecting their job performance, health, and happiness.
Sadly, the working world just isn’t set up for people who are at their most productive at 10pm and like to sleep until noon.
Add to that the trend of high-profile role models boasting about rising at the crack of dawn (Tim Cook, Michelle Obama, Oprah), and suddenly we’ve ended up in a world where success and hard work are associated with getting as little sleep as possible.
With all that pressure, it’s no wonder that employees are feeling more stressed out than ever.
And now that the exhaustion industry, backed by advocates like Walker and Culpin, has woken us up to the devastating impact of our bedtime habits (helpfully tracked by ever more meticulous technology so you know exactly how much of a sleep failure you are), that in itself has become yet another thing to toss and turn about.
Better go buy a personalised pillow or subscribe to a sleep training app.
Essentially, our fast-paced, tech-driven, highly competitive culture has been stealing our sleep. And now that same fast-paced, tech-driven, highly competitive culture is selling it back to us.
Something to sleep on tonight.