The Politics of Sleep

James Potts highlights "sleep" as a vital area for policy makers to consider.

I recently read one of the most informative books I've ever picked up. "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker is excellent and I'd highly recommend it.

But this got me thinking about how we spend a third of our time sleeping, yet it's hardly discussed in policy making. So what does the politics of sleep actually look like?

We often think of sleep as something to be marginalised and squeezed. We glorify those working long hours such as stockbrokers. Thatcher and Reagan were both famous for working on little sleep.

They are not alone, millions of us either choose not to or struggle to enough shuteye on a regular basis. We're often watching TV, out socialising or drinking or worse idling browsing social media in bed instead of getting sleep. Let's be honest, we've all done it!

The book talks about the various science behind sleep and the biological implications this has before zooming out to focus on the societal impacts. But the overarching message of the book it to ensure you get around eight hours of sleep a night. Failure to do so regularly can have alarming implications both in the short and long term and if I were you I'd check out the book if you want to find out the details.

But it's the societal impacts I want to focus on here. Firstly, the economic impacts are huge. According to the book, insufficient sleep costs us 1.9% of our GDP each year in lost productivity, which is the equivalent of $40bn. I'm sure you'll agree this isn't an insignificant account. One specific way productivity is lost is that sleep loss affects our memory. During sleep, our brains transfer the memories from that day to a deeper part of the brain for long term storage. Not getting enough sleep stops that from happening as well and can subsequently affect how much we remember the next day.

How do we address this? Well one way is through flexible working, something we're already heading towards and we should continue to encourage companies to adopt such a policy. Walker describes how there are two types of people, Morning Larks (of which I am one) and Night Owls. Because our circadian rhythms (which tell our bodies when it's time to sleep) are different, the times in which we are most productive alters. Morning larks peak in the late morning, before slumping slightly in the the afternoon, and night owls peak late in the afternoon. This should be reflected in the hours we work across all sectors so we can help maximize employee productivity.

Additionally, those working at night are damaging their health by going against those natural circadian rhythm. Those people are also more likely to be in low paid jobs such as cleaners. Our society needs to take a look at this. It's a myth, dispelled in the book, that you can always make up sleep afterwards and the long term effects of not getting enough sleep are stark.

Sleep loss has been linked with a range of different medical issues which are outlined in the book. But to give you an idea, these include: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, poor metabolisms leading to weight gain, worse immune systems, depression, anxiety and Alzheimer's Disease. Just going back to Thatcher and Reagan, both of them might have slept little but they went on to develop dementia in later life.

All of this further impacts on our healthcare system, putting it under greater strain and costs billions a year to deal with. Often the best way to prevent these issues is to ensure we get a proper nights sleep. It's the free wonder drug we never talk or think about and we hinder our own bodies ability to heal, repair and protect itself by not getting enough sleep. This needs to change.

Sleep deprivation is also a major factor in the number of car crashes that occur each year. We spent a lot of money telling people not to drink and drive and hardly any public awareness is given to sleeping at the wheel. Yet more people die from drowsiness while driving than alcohol. Walker deliberately calls them crashes and not accidents as it's everyone's responsibility to ensure they are not driving when they have not had enough sleep.

One interesting part of the book talked about how teenagers have a later circadian rhythm for that period of their life. This partly accounts for their moody behaviour. If woken up too early, it's the equivalent of waking an adult at 5am, which I'm sure most of us wouldn't be happy about! As such, education policy should focus on starting secondary and university education later in the day to help increase learning. Shifting school start times to after 9am or as late as possible would hugely help, especially if your teenager has to be up super early in order to get ready and travel a long way to school. Their academic attainment is greatly improved by proper sleep.

Similarly, Walker debunks the myth that you can pull an all-nighter before an exam and nail it. Your memory works best when you have a proper nights sleep and your brain after an all-nighter is basically a sieve, so little of what you learn actually goes in. Sorry Freshers!

Turning to the world of medicine, some of the most sleep deprived people in society are often our medical professionals, who face long, tough shifts with people's lives literally in their hands. If you've read Adam Kay's This Is Going To Hurt, then you'll know how bad it can be. This needs to be looked at urgently as tired doctors and nurses can make more mistakes, which can have deadly consequences.

One area I've thought sleep could make a difference is in prisons. The stereotypical image of a prison is of open cells with bars and the ability for inmates to hear each other. This means they get less sleep if one inmate is being particularly noisy. This damages their health and can limit their rehabilitation and eventual reintroduction into society. For example, I mentioned earlier that sleep loss affects your memory. You're less likely to remember details of your case if you're continually deprived of sleep. There should be a greater emphasis on ensuring prisoners get a full nights sleep if we are serious about giving them a second chance.

In conclusion, policy makers shouldn't be afraid to discuss sleep and as a society we need to stop glorifying those who deliberately deprive themselves of sleep. It is missing from the political lexicon almost completely, which is astounding given we should spend a third of our lives doing it. Indeed the book mentions two avoidable human disasters which were caused by sleep deprivation, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. Both of these could have been prevented by proper sleep.

At the end of the day, our waking day isn't ignored by policy makers, so why should our slumber be?

James Potts is Chair of the Young Fabians Devolution & Local Government Network.

He tweets @JamesPotts

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