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It’s more than the shorter days that’s making us feel sleepy

That it gets dark so early in the evenings now – as we head toward the winter solstice, many of us are heading out before the sun’s up and returning home after it’s set – that it’s easy to feel somewhat disoriented at night. It feels like bedtime long before that’s actually the case.

Coupled with the general malaise and lack of activity  of the coronavirus era, feeling sluggish isn’t a rare occurrence.

While there may be more naps on some people’s agendas, the reality is that we continue to feel tired because we are tired, the result of not getting enough sleep. Today, some 60 per cent of Canadian adults feel tired most of the time and get, on average, 6.9 hours of sleep a night, although experts recommend eight hours. Canadian research indicates 30 per cent of adults get fewer than six hours a night.

In fact, we’re now sleeping as much as two hour less than just four decades ago when people slept eight and half hours or longer each night.

Studies show we’re increasingly sleep deprived, adjusting to the relentless demands of a 24/7 society.

The lack of sleep isn’t just inconvenient – and great for coffee vendors – it’s bad for your health. More widely, it has societal impacts due to the increase of car crashes, workplace accidents and other industrial mishaps, some of them potentially serious.

The scientific evidence is mounting that getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep is having wide-ranging impacts on our bodies, our minds and, especially, on the health of our children, who need even more sleep: 10 to 11 hours per night.

Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health. Unintentionally falling asleep, nodding off while driving, and having difficulty performing daily tasks because of sleepiness all may contribute to these hazardous outcomes, studies show.

Sleep deprivation is linked to a higher mortality risk. An individual that sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a 13 per cent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. An individual sleeping between six to seven hours per day still has a seven per cent higher mortality risk.

Multiple factors are associated with shorter sleep. These include obesity, excessive alcohol and sugary drink consumption, smoking, lack of physical activity, mental health problems, stress at work, shift work/irregular working hours, financial concerns, and long commuting.

On something of a side note, if you’re dieting, you’d be advised to mind your sleep: People eat 20 per cent more, on average, after one night of acutely reduced sleep. Studies have shown that persistent under-sleeping results in measurable weight gain over an extended period of time. Given that the average nightly sleep has been declining steadily over the past four decades, the natural conclusion is that sleep deprivation has contributed to the corresponding increase in obesity rates over the same period.

Sounds like a pretty high price to pay for staying up to binge watch whatever’s streaming to your TV. Or, more likely, try to get a long list of things done in the quiet time when the kids are asleep. Or deal with those work emails and texts that arrive at inappropriate hours.

Work is a big reason why we go without sleep. Longer hours. More technology. Longer commutes. Multiple jobs. Shift work. All of it contributes to our lack of sleep and resultant poorer health. (All, not coincidently, symptomatic of the falling standard of living and quality of life in the past few decades.)

Overall, the more we work, the less we sleep. According to Statistics Canada, working full-time translated into 24 minutes less sleep compared to not being in the labour force. Men sleep less on average about 11 minutes less than women a night, but women have a higher rate of trouble falling asleep and staying asleep – 35 per cent compared with 25 per cent for men. Work schedules have much to do with the gender gap in sleep schedules. Working full-time is a key factor: Men who work full-time sleep 14 minutes less than women who work full-time, or about 85 hours or 3.5 days less sleep per year. However, for Canadians who work part-time or have no employment, there is no difference between the sexes in terms of sleep time.

More than three-quarters of Canadian workers say they work while tired, with one-third saying they do so very often, according to a new survey released this week. The costs of working tired are high: Respondents cite lack of focus or being easily distracted (50 per cent), procrastinating more (44 per cent), being grumpy (36 per cent) and making more mistakes (26 per cent) among the consequences of foregoing sleep.

Eighty-five per cent of professionals between the ages of 18 and 34 admitted to being sleepy at work often, compared to 75 per cent of workers age 35 to 54 and only 57 per cent of respondents age 55 and older. Slightly more women (80 per cent) than men (72 per cent) said they often work while tired.

As noted, all this missing sleep comes at a price.

The cost of sleep disorders in Canada are estimated at $1.6 billion a year in direct costs and another $5 to $10 billion in related losses. All told, sleep deprivation costs the Canadian economy some $21.4 billion, or 1.35 per cent of GDP.

In the short term, reducing the impacts of our tiredness is more sleep – better sleep hygiene, as your doctor might suggest. In the longer term, well, we’re going to need some changes to the way society has evolved, especially as it applies to work schedules.

Early on the industrial era we began to hear about the leisure society. That ideal became even more talked about in the computer age: we were going to have so much leisure time that society would actually have to make arrangements for it. That’s certainly not been the case. In fact, statistics from the last three decades show we’re typically working increasingly longer hours for modest, if any gains. And at great cost due to the lack of sleep as we go through the impossible effort of cramming more hours into the day, the increased downtime of the pandemic notwithstanding.

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