Why sleeplessness could be to blame for Britain's falling productivity

Business representatives have pointed to Brexit as the cause of decreased productivity – but should they be looking towards the bedroom instead?

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“If I sleep badly, I am less focused, my colleagues notice because I’m quieter, I can’t bring myself to have long chats, and it impacts on my mood,” says Rishi Patel, a 29-year-old political risk analyst from London and friend of this reporter, who feels his sleep has suffered over the last three or four years. He varies between five and eight hours on a good night, and often struggles to fall asleep.

“In a bad period of sleep, I’m feeling stressed at work because I’m so tired, I’m being unproductive and therefore I’m not working to my capacity… Some days if I've had five or six hours sleep, I can slave away on writing something across a whole day, but if I've had a really good night's sleep and I'm feeling really fresh, I just find it very easy to plan and get things out very quickly.

“I think it really has a significant impact in terms of my alertness and productivity.”

He’s not alone.

The productivity of UK workers has fallen at its fastest pace in five years. The figure, which is measured by output per hour, decreased by 0.5 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics’ labour productivity figures for April-June 2019.

Business voices have been quick to point towards the impact of Brexit uncertainty, with companies limiting investment in workforces.

Yet another, less obvious, factor could be to blame for our falling productivity.

Numerous surveys have found that people in Britain are sleeping badly. A report this week by Loughborough University (commissioned by the bed company Dreams) finds three in four employees in the UK suffer persistent sleep problems, and over half (54 per cent) are unable to stay awake in the day.

A quarter of respondents report their sleep problems prevent them from completing work they had planned, and mean they struggle to work fast and maintain quality. On average, employees in the UK take two sick days a year to catch up on sleep.

According to the 2018/19 Great British Sleeping Habits survey (commissioned by online pharmacy Chemist 4 U and carried out by One Poll), almost 23 per cent of people living in the UK only get between 5 and 6 hours of sleep per night.

This means that the average person in Britain is getting around 34.5 minutes less sleep a night than those in other countries, when compared with stats from the Global Sleep Poll (conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Phillips last year). In total, this amounts to an annual 8.76 days less sleep per person than the global average.

A Rand study into the economic effects of sleep deprivation last February found that the insufficient and poor quality sleep of UK workers was losing the country 1.86 per cent of its GDP, or 200,000 working days each year. According to the authors of the report, if people who currently sleep under six hours began sleeping just six to seven hours, this could add £24.5bn to the UK economy. 

How likely is it that this social phenomenon is affecting British business – and what’s behind it?

“[Our] study showed there is a direct link between bad sleep and poor productivity – both in terms of reduced employee output and increased sick days,” says Professor Kevin Morgan, author of the Loughborough University report. “By contrast, those who felt their productivity had been above average rated their sleep quality higher and fell asleep 5 minutes faster.”

Professor Morgan identifies a “sleep stigma” in workplaces, where work-related stress is the biggest cause of sleepless nights, and people fear raising sleeping problems with colleagues. Almost two-thirds of business leaders (63 per cent) say sleep is the sole responsibility of the individual, and 70 per cent of workers have never spoken to their bosses about bad sleep for fear it would damage their careers or increase scrutiny from managers.

He suggests technology and the lack of a work-life balance are reasons for our sleep deterioration. Smartphones have made it “harder to set boundaries between work time and down time”, he says, and “we found taking work worries home and feeling like you can’t switch off negatively impact our sleep”.

After 25 years as a doctor, the GP Dr Pixie McKenna – who was involved in the Loughborough research – says she finds patients are reporting sleep deprivation more than ever before in her career. “People are working more, longer hours, there’s an expectation you never really shut off, so I think it’s making it worse for sure.” She believes “a bigger interest by employers to look after their employees’ general health” would help.

Although the ONS has not yet given detailed commentary about the productivity figures, its deputy chief economist Richard Heys said productivity “has continued the weak trajectory it has followed over the last year” and that this “confirms the broad base of the UK’s productivity challenges”.

Elsewhere, the ONS has labelled this a continuation of “the UK’s productivity puzzle”. If the numbers continue to plummet, perhaps there is something going on closer to home that could factor into employers’ thinking. At the moment, just 3 per cent of companies have a sleep policy, despite 2018 guidance from Public Health England suggesting that businesses do more to improve their workers’ sleep.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.