The Hidden Cost Of Sleep Deprivation

man sleeping outsideHow often do you or a work colleague talk about how badly you slept the previous night?

Perhaps it’s a conversation you regularly have with one or two family members or friends?

The irony is that we might complain about what a bad night’s sleep we had; but equally we’ll continue to stay up late because of work, social or family commitments.

Working long hours, so the general opinion goes, makes us appear committed and even tough in the workplace. However, suffering from sleep deprivation doesn’t always lead to the proud feeling of dedication to the cause.

In fact, a lack of sleep more often leads to a wide range of problems – more days taken off work, arguments, illness, accidents, and the list goes on.

Lost work days due to lost sleep

officesA recent project by The RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution, examined the economic burden of insufficient sleep in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Japan and Germany.

The findings of the study suggested that insufficient sleep, for whatever reason, can result in large economic costs in terms of lost GDP and lower labor productivity.

Their research reveals some shocking figures – for example, the US alone sustains economic losses of up to $411 billion a year. Furthermore, 1.23 million work days are lost due to insufficient sleep among the workforce.

While the numbers are high and the potential news headlines worrying, it’s hard to take those figures and apply them to our everyday lives.

We’re so used to sleeping poorly that many of us regard it as a 21st century norm. It’s only when we examine the impact of poor sleep on an individual basis that the true impact becomes apparent.

Making gamblers of us all

gamblingAt an individual level, sleep deprivation can lead to poor decision making and an inability to properly assess risk.

Whilst functioning on reduced sleep has become routine in society, numerous studies show that individuals make worse choices when sleep deprived.

Margaret King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, in an article for USA News, cites a 2011 Duke University study that examined the choices people typically make when sleep deprived.

The study, which used gambling scenarios, showed that a single night of sleep deprivation shifted people’s bias from defending against losses to pursuing gains.

“The Duke gambling study found that sleep loss affected impulse control, judgment, emotional response and complex decision-making.” King said.

King added that MRI scans taken during the study found that the regions of the brain linked to rewards and positive outcomes “were the factors behind gamers making bad calls and taking higher risks on bad bets.”

In the study, even mild sleep deprivation of a single night altered the participants’ optimism bias. When sleep deprived, participants behaved as if positive consequences were more likely (or more valuable), and as if negative consequences were less likely (or less harmful).

Of course we’re not all gamblers in the traditional sense of the word. However, on a daily basis we do have to continually risk assess our choices and actions.

Every time we cross a busy road, make lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking alcohol or doing exercise, or choose to invest our hard earned cash, we’re still essentially gambling.

So it’s important to recognize that our decisions will be impacted by how much sleep we’ve had.

Reading between the lines

woman smilingApart from impacting on our decision making process, sleep deprivation also makes it harder for us to read the facial expressions of others. Even the more subtle expressions of the people we know intimately.

A recent study found that sleep deprived participants were less capable of discerning the nature of facial expressions. Moreover, they themselves were less emotionally responsive.

Those with sleep deprivation found expressions more threatening than when they were well rested. And they smiled and laughed less, even when they noted something was amusing.

Facial expressions are an essential part of human social interaction. They communicate the state and intent of an individual and, if interpreted correctly, influence how we respond to others in return.

If sleep deprivation impedes our ability to interpret facial expressions correctly, then the repercussions are huge, not just within the home environment but in the public sphere too.

“Sleep deprivation can have public safety implications,” says Namni Goel, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal.

She highlights that Military personnel and police officers often face situations where they need to accurately and quickly interpret the facial expressions of others.

“If you are slower to identify what is happening and that is coupled with what we know, that you become more impulsive when sleep-deprived and risk-taking goes up, that can have deadly consequences,” Dr. Goel says.

Public health translates to personal loss

police car at an accidentIt’s difficult to truly comprehend the impact of sleep deprivation on public health just by looking at the numbers; it’s only when individual incidents are considered that we realize the true human cost.

Some of the most devastating human and environmental health disasters have been partially attributed to sleep disorders, sleep loss and night shift work-related performance failures.

Examples include: the tragedy at the Bhopal chemical plant in India; the nuclear reactor meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; the grounding of the Star Princess cruise ship and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.

Sleepiness is also a significant contributor to serious motor vehicle injuries. A study in New Zealand in 2002 asked 571 car drivers involved in crashes, where at least one occupant was admitted to hospital or killed, detailed questions regarding acute sleepiness.

They found that close to 20% of serious car crash injuries in the general population were associated with driver sleepiness.

The most significant risk factor for the crashes was sleep loss and time of day (driving between 2:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m.)

The Institute of Medicine’s 2000 report ‘To Err Is Human‘ estimated that as many as 98,000 deaths due to medical errors occur annually in United States hospitals.

The notoriously long work hours, unpredictable shifts and broken sleep patterns among hospital workers are now known to contribute to the problem.

Since the report’s release, new studies have found strong relationships between sleep loss, shift duration, and medical errors among medical residents.

In a 2001 study, surgeons showed impaired speed and accuracy in simulated laparoscopic performance after a night on call in a surgical department.

That report called for further investigation, primarily into how long it would take surgeons to recuperate from sleep deprivation. Fifteen years later, surgical residents and EMT staff are still campaigning for shorter hours.


The economic consequences of sleep deprivation on the work force may be startling, but it’s the human cost which is more important to most people.

The accidents that could have been avoided, the relationships that could have endured, and the innocent bystanders who could have survived.

Sleep deprivation is a worldwide problem, and one which unfortunately isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

While health agencies can do their part to educate people about the importance of sleep, and provide advice on sleeping better, we also have a responsibility to look after ourselves and others as best we can.

So the next time you sleep badly, try to remember that perhaps you might not be at your best the next day.

Go easy on yourself and others. Think carefully about the decisions you make that day. Try to pay extra attention if driving or doing other activities which could be considered risky.

And later that day, do your best to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep, using all the techniques you know will help you relax and sleep better.

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