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26 October 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

No wonder the world is angry

The demands of the workplace are squeezing our sleep to such an extent people are increasingly turni

By Dominic Byrne

What daylight saving time taketh away in March, it giveth back in October. And that extra hour in bed is a rarer commodity than one might think.

Because people are working so hard they have virtually no time to sleep. A fifth of American adults sleep fewer than six hours a night, says the US National Sleep Foundation, and that number is rising despite doctors telling us it’s bad for our health.

Asia is yet more sleep deprived – four out of ten Japanese sleep no more than six hours, according to an ACNielsen sleep survey. Perhaps it’s no surprise the most sleepless countries top the national income tables. Workers in the richest nations are sacrificing sleep to sustain healthy growth figures.

Today’s work-sleep balance is oddly reminiscent of late 18th century Lancashire. Workers during the dark days of industrial take-off spent 12 to 14 hours a day in the cotton mills on six-day weeks.

At the day’s end, there was little time for anything other than eating before collapsing into a bunk. The “eight hours for work, eight hours for leisure, eight hours for sleep” the 19th-century Chartists fought for redressed those grim conditions, but has been forgotten like last night’s dream.

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Proof enough are the gaunt, sickly faces on a midweek morning on the Tube – or indeed the New York Subway or Tokyo’s Metro. A recent survey by the think tank Demos found that 39% of adults admit they suffer from sleep deprivation, rising to 50% for those in managerial jobs.

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Sleep steals hours from productive work. The technologists, therefore, have always had an incentive to come up with profitable solutions. Thomas Edison’s 1913 invention of artificial daylight, the light bulb, changed natural sleeping patterns for good. It also, you could argue, undid the great work of the Chartists’ eight-hour campaign. Workers could now toil 24 hours; round-the-clock production started at Henry Ford’s factories in Detroit and hit previously unimaginable output rates.

In many ways, Edison epitomised modern capitalism’s constant yearning for increased productivity and efficiency.

“Most people … oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient,” he said.

“The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake.” According to a 1975 study by Wilse E Webb and Harman Agnew, Edison robbed us of two hours sleep every night.

Just before the pre-light bulb era in 1910, the average adult slept 9 hours. The average today is 7 to 7.5 – that’s up to 700 hours a year most likely doing overtime.

Edison’s edict of “more work, less sleep” rules the commercial bustle as much as it did a century ago, but today workers are increasingly turning to pharmaceuticals to get them through the day.

In fact, sleep is now big business and has become the fastest-growing sector of the £300 billion global pharmaceutical, leisure and well-being market.

Tiredness is often treated like an unwanted virus. In the US, a mild amphetamine is replacing the double espresso to fend off daytime drowsiness.

Ritalin – prescribed for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy and chronic fatigue syndrome – is seeing more widespread abuse.

A new generation of eugeroics or “wakefulness” pills promises to keep tomorrow’s workers awake into the night: Modafinil, a sleep suppressant, is used both by the military to maintain the alertness of pilots on 40-hour missions and college students cramming for finals. US-based Cortex Pharmaceuticals is developing a simulated-sleep pill, CX717, that when taken replicates the effects and benefits of a good night’s sleep – but in two waking hours.

We, like other animals, need food, water and sleep to live. Studies have shown that our sleeping habits are governed, as with primates, by the Carcadian cycle: every 12 hours our bodies and brains want downtime, first at between 1am and 4am, then again in the early afternoon.

The siesta – not as Mediterranean as is commonly thought, and widespread in northern Europe a few centuries ago – is a natural remedy, but one that is even being phased out in its spiritual home, Spain. A national government campaign there last year urged civil servants to take no more than 45 minutes for lunch because it posed a challenge to productivity.

Sleep has become a valuable commodity. If you want it, be prepared to pay for it. The pressure to top the world economy super league has trickled down inevitably to the competitive workplace, encroached on our bedtimes and subtly enforced a sleep diet.

Is it time to resurrect outside our office blocks the intertwined numbers “888”, which adorned the pediments of many union buildings in 19th-century Australia and doffed a cap to the Chartists? Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep isn’t much to ask.