Sleep epidemic takes $66 billion toll

Sleep epidemic takes $66 billion toll
By Hannah Dixon on 10 August 2017 Loss of sleep is costing the Australian economy up to $66 billion a year in health bills, lost productivity and lost wellbeing, a new report has found.

The Sleep Health Foundation Report by Deloitte Access Economics estimates the costs involved with lost productivity amounted to $17.9 billion. 

 “This lack of sleep had harmful effects on everyday function, and exacerbated health conditions from heart disease and stroke through to diabetes and depression in tens of thousands of Australians,” said Professor Dorothy Bruck, chair of the Sleep Health Foundation. 

The report found four out of every 10 Australians are suffering from inadequate sleep. Half of these people experience ongoing pathologically high levels of daytime sleepiness, Professor Bruck said. The rest know that their sleep is routinely insufficient because they can’t function at normal levels of alertness, concentration and emotional control.

“This clearly shows that we have an epidemic of disabling sleep loss affecting a large chunk of our population. Put simply, we have 7.4 million Australians who are not getting the sleep they need to fully function throughout the day,” he said

The results are especially concerning when considered alongside new research suggesting sleep is vital in allowing each cell, in every organ of the body, to continue to function, Professor Bruck said. 

“No wonder sleep deprivation is such a highly effective form of torture,” he said.

Education needed

Dr Carmel Harrington is the managing director of Sleep for Health and a founding member of the Sleep Health Foundation. She said the results of the report were not surprising.

“We have known in the industry that loss of sleep really affects productivity and it has a direct cost to the whole country in health bills,” Dr Harrington said.

She echoes the report’s recommendation for more education about sleep and its importance to encourage behavioural change.

“Sleep has gone off the radar and we often use lack of sleep as a badge of honour. We say ‘I’m so busy, I worked so late last night,’” she said.

“But what we have forgotten is that how we spend those eight hours asleep is vital. We actually perform vital biological functions in our sleep and it has an impact on our mental and physical health.”

While the report calls for a carefully worded public health campaign, Dr Harrington said that work health and safety also played a vital role in educating employees about sleep. This is particularly true for employees engaged in shiftwork.

“Many people don’t understand sleep health, including WHS managers,” she said. 

“Once people realise it is not just two pillars of health but three – exercise, nutrition and sleep – then we can start optimising our practices.”

The role of WHS

The report recommends that work health and safety authorities tighten regulations in work sectors where sleep is irregular but responsibility is high. This includes defence, transport and health. 

In particular, they call for a new policy that ensures the nation’s tens of thousands of shift workers have body clock-sensitive rostering and well-timed exposure to dark and light to ensure they feel alert on the job and sleepy at bedtime. 

This is already being introduced. In July, two Victorian hospitals began trials of body clock rostering systems.

Regulations were also needed to limit excessive work hours and encourage lighter, brighter building designs proven to help keep staff more alert.

Government support

Despite the considerable cost associated with sleep problems in Australia, Deloitte economists found the issue received very little policy attention from governments. 

“As these results show, it’s time governments gave sleep the policy airtime it deserves to get our citizens sleeping better and longer.”

The report also calls for increased policy effort to be devoted to research on the causes of sleep disorders as well as better prevention, early detection and cost-effective treatment options for people with sleep problems. 

“Ultimately, the responsibility for reducing fatigue must be shared amongst government, industry, the workforce, the public and the scientific community,” Professor Bruck says. “Now is the time to step up and address it.”

The report can be read in full here.

See also: Shiftworkers plagued by sleep-related problems
Sleep deprivation costs the economy billions – and sends workers to an early grave
Sleep deprivation deadly in an “always on” culture


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