Eyes Wide Shut

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Too many of us are asleep at the wheel… and it’s bad for business

By Johan Nylander


Few people would feel comfortable in their ability to turn up at the office early in the morning reeling from too much booze the night before and still putting in a good day’s work. But arriving tired, eyes red from lack of sleep, is common practice at many companies. Indeed, burning the midnight oil and pitching up in time for the breakfast meeting is even considered a badge of honor in many workplaces.

Research shows that being sleep deprived can have the same effect as being drunk. Lack of sleep is doing more harm than just making people grumpy and unhealthy – it kills creativity and lowers work output. It leads to thousands of fatal accidents every year.

“Lack of sleep decreases efficiency and judgment,” says Marcus Marcet, specialist in eye and vision care at the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital. “In general, over about 20 hours of continuously being awake is roughly equal to alcohol intoxication above the legal limit to drive.”

`Over about 20 hours of continuously being awake is roughly equal to alcohol intoxication above the legal limit to drive’ –  Hong Kong Sanatorium’s Marcus Marcet

Sleep deprivation affects many aspects of life, including cognition, memory, driving and work performance. Research has shown, he explains, that sleep deprived workers are more likely to make mistakes in performance. While a boozy lunch on work time is no longer acceptable, it could in fact be safer to be drunk than sleep impaired once you hit a certain level, according to neuroscience research.

“As an ophthalmologist, I would be remiss to not point out the bane of travelers on overnight flights – that is red eyes,” Marcet says. “However, lack of sleep can also cause more serious conditions.”

Sleep – just like water, food, and air – is a necessity for all humans. While you sleep, your body is hard at work, restoring, strengthening and rejuvenating itself. Researchers suggest that the average amount of sleep needed to prevent the side effects of sleep deprivation is seven to eight hours for adults – some people need more, others less.

In general, people in Asia suffer more from sleep deprivation than people in the West. About half of all full-time workers in Asian cities say they don’t get enough sleep, and that the problem is getting worse every year. In Japan the phenomena of over-tired office workers who hardly can keep their eyes open even has a special word: inemuri – “sleeping while present.”

People in Hong Kong are however ranked as being most sleep deprived in the Asia Pacific region, according to insurance company AIA’s Healthy Living Index. While Hong Kong adults would ideally like eight hours of sleep a night, they only manage six and a half on average.

Dr Noelle Ng Wing Kwan, a specialist in general practice at Gleneagles Hong Kong Hospital, says that lack of sleep affects us both physically and mentally. It has a major impact on our cognitive function, especially in the area of attention, logical reasoning, creative thinking and multi-tasking. 

“In view of impaired attention and cognitive function, productivity and efficiency at work would be lowered. In addition, workers would be more prone to accidents and occupational errors,” she says. “The consequences could be especially serious in certain type of occupation, for example, medical doctors, drivers and pilots.”

Undeniably, there can be few among us who would be happy seeing the pilot take a big yawn just before takeoff, or our surgeon just as we are about to go under.

Lack of sleep can also be seen the financial numbers. A study by not-for-profit research organization Rand Europe found that productivity losses at work occur through a combination of absenteeism – employees not being at work – and presenteeism – where they’re at work when they are ill and consequently working to a lower standard.

The study – the first of its kind – found that lack of sleep represents a drag of US$411 billion a year on the U.S. economy, or 2.3 percent of the country’s economy. Losses for Japan are even higher as a proportion of economic output, at about 2.9 percent of GDP, or up to US$138 billion a year. By simply increasing nightly sleep from less than six hours to between six and seven hours could add US$75.7 billion to the Japanese economy, the researchers said.

A separate U.S. study has estimated the annual costs of insomnia to be up to US$107.5 billion. Almost half of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances report missing work or events, or making errors at work, compared to 15 percent of healthy sleepers.

Dr Kenneth Tsang, a specialist in respiratory medicine at Hong Kong Adventist Hospital, says that people who do not have adequate sleep are more prone to deficiency in decision-making and problem-solving abilities when formally tested.

“Long-term sleep deprivation is also associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes mellitus, which are major killers in developed countries,” he says.

`Long-term sleep deprivation is also associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes mellitus’ – Adventist’s Kenneth Tsang

A common cause of tiredness is snoring or apnea, a serious sleep disorder that results in daytime fatigue and a constant state of tiredness. Sleep apnea is a condition where a person stops breathing for a period of time during sleep, often occurring several times during the night. It can be due to physical blockage in the back of the throat or a miscommunication between the nervous system and breathing muscles.

Dr Terry Hung, specialist in otorhinolaryngology – the study of diseases of the ear, nose, and throat – at Matilda International Hospital in Hong Kong, says that untreated sleep apnea can impact your quality of working life by damaging cognitive functions but also making people bad-tempered.

“The sleep-deprived can exhibit mood-related inappropriate behavior. [The person] can be quiet and withdrawn, but also have outbursts of anger,” Hung says.

Another way to catch up on sleep is to have a power nap. Many companies in Japan encourage employees to take a nap on the job, convinced it leads to better performance. So do an increasing number of companies in China – including the tech giant Huawei, whose office workers can be seen rolling out sleeping mats by their desks at lunch time.

“Having a nap in the afternoon is a common practice across many cultures and societies,” Adventist Hospital’s Tsang says.

Researchers agree that a power nap is good for you, as long as they don’t interfere with your normal sleeping pattern. It makes you cleverer and more creative at work. Your decision-making sharpens and it lowers the risk of making clumsy mistakes.

‘Sleep deprived can exhibit mood-related inappropriate behavior’ – Matilda’s Terry Hung

One study of 23,000 Greek adults found that people who took midday naps are less likely to die from heart disease. And one British study actually reports an improvement in blood pressure on the subjects tested even on anticipation of a nap, Tsang says. Napping is also shown to improve memory, and thus should be good for productivity.

You should, however, stay away from long naps – they make you drowsy.

‘The consequences could be especially serious in certain type of occupation, for example, medical doctors, drivers and pilots’ – Gleneagles’ Noelle Ng Wing Kwan

One alternative to a nap is to encourage employees to exercise regularly, preferably during the late afternoon, says Gleneagles’ Ng, as this has a positive effect on the person’s overall sleep pattern.

In short, sleep deprivation is bad for businesses. Consistently burning the midnight oil can trigger a downward spiral in mental health and work performance. Creativity needs a rested mind if it is to flourish.