Bad sleep habits will cost the U.S. $434 billion in 2020

Our always-on culture has us working harder, doing more, and sleeping less. While the health ailments of sleep deprivation are well known, a study by Rand Europe shows that it is costing the economy as well, with the U.S. estimated to lose up to $434 billion in 2020.

woman sleeping redhead
Pexels, Ivan Obolensky


If you want to get ahead in life, then you’ll need to work hard, be disciplined, and sacrifice sleep. If you’re asleep, you’re not working, and if you don’t work constantly, you can never manage a successful company or create the art that will make you famous. It’s not just your success on the line, either. Your country’s economy is counting on you to be a productive member of society. Besides, there will be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.

If you’re thinking these old saws sound dull, you’re right, and the data agree with you. Insufficient sleep has been linked to a slew of health issues, such as obesity, hypertension, and heart disease. It can also cause mood disorders and is a main contributor to poor work-life balance.

Workers pay and pay often for their poor sleep habits, but since the best-known ailments of sleep deprivation are personal in nature, employers and society do little to properly incentivize good sleep hygiene. But according to a study by Rand Europe, sleep-deprived Americans will cost the United States economy up to $434 billion by 2020, and the tab gets larger after that.

Sleep pays for itself

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Based on survey data from 62,000 people, Rand Europe created a bespoke macroeconomic model that stimulated the interactions of economic agents (workers, companies, governments, etc.). They ran the model through three scenarios, and the results for 2016, the year of the study’s release, were staggering.

The United States proved the biggest economic loser, with losses between $281 and $411 billion. Japan, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom were also modeled, and researchers estimated that all five countries lose “up to $680 billion dollars of economic output every year.”

That’s the bad news. The worst news is that these economic losses increase slightly in magnitude over time, meaning we forfeit more every year we don’t devise solutions for our societal sleep deprivation. In 2020, the U.S. is estimated to lose between $299 and $434 billion. By 2030, the amount will be between $330 and $468 billion.

Invested properly, these amounts could easily fund tuition-free public colleges and provide health care coverage for uninsured families, with change to spare (or, you know, it could develop one-third of an F-35 fighter jet).

Productive postmortem

Commuters sleep in a metro car in Moscow on May 23, 2018. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

We lose more year after year because of how insufficient sleep drains productivity from the labor supply — namely, through lower productivity levels, negatively affected skill development, and higher mortality risks.

The study found that less sleep increased absenteeism (due to illness) and presenteeism (that is, being physically at work but mentally checked out). Workers who slept less than six hours a day averaged a 2.4 percentage point loss of productivity compared to healthy sleepers. That may not seem like much, but it adds up to 6 working days lost per year per sleep-deprived worker.

Expand that number across the U.S., and the country loses the equivalent of 1.23 million working days a year. Days that, once lost, are gone.

Insufficient sleep also drains talent from the labor supply by hindering the skill development of school children, preventing them from properly acquiring the skills necessary to grow their productivity once a part of the workforce.

Finally, the study looked at the link between sleep deprivation and death. Poor sleepers have a 13 percent higher mortality risk from all causes of death, including, but not limited to, health-related issues and accidents caused by drowsiness. The CDC cites drowsy driving as responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013 alone.

 

Workers who die particularly impact economic losses, as their removal from the labor supply doesn’t just affect the year they died. It also removes all their future productivity, as well as the productivity of potential future children.

Even if there is time to sleep when you’re dead, there isn’t time to do much else.

Make sleep a priority, not a luxury

PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Good sleep hygiene improves your health and work-life balance, so it is to your benefit, not just the benefit of your employer or the country’s economy, that you sleep and sleep well.

Here are some tips to help you get a good night’s rest:

  • Rest up. The National Sleep Foundation recommends working-aged adults (26–64 years old) get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Less or more sleep may be appropriate depending on personal needs. Women, for example, need more sleep than men on average.
  • Figure out your circadian rhythm. Try to go to bed and wake up at times that feel natural to you (but still net you the hours you need). Once you find that rhythm, be consistent. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Don’t acquire sleep debt. Your weekend catch-up sessions will credit you a bit, but it’s usually not enough. Creating a consistent sleep schedule is the only way to stay in the black.
  • Don’t consume nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, or sugary drinks before bed. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it reduces rapid-eye movement, curbing the quality of your sleep.
  • Silence is golden. Your brain needs silence to recover from the day. Schedule your phone to be silent during your sleep hours, and try to fix any household intermittent noises that you can (looking at you, leaky faucet).
  • Be in balance. Your room should be neither too warm nor too cold. Your body has to work to maintain a regular temperature in extreme conditions, making it difficult to rest.5
  • Darkness, my old friend. Night lighting may not be very bright, but it is significantly more so than the natural light of the moon and stars. Remove LEDs from your room and block out street lighting to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
  • No screen time before bed. The blue light of electronic screens prevents your pineal gland from releasing melatonin. Melatonin helps reduce alertness and mellow you out. Without it, your brain stays alert and awake.
  • Stop the snooze cycle. Using a snooze button wrecks your pre-waking REM and blunts your morning brain.8 If you’re waking up tired, you need to adjust to get more sleep.
  • Stay healthy. Exercise will also help you sleep by burning off excess energy earlier in the day.

Of course, our jobs will often add stressors that put mental relaxation out of our control. Commutes, financial concerns, unrealistic deadlines, irregular hours, and our always-on work culture are all cited by the authors of the Rand Europe study as sleep deterring qualities of the modern work environment.

As such, it may be worth having a talk with your manager about how to properly address deficiencies that deprive employees of sleep. Remember, it’s not just about your health, but your ability to perform productively for your employer. As the study’s authors note, “Solving the problem of insufficient sleep represents a potential ‘win-win’ situation for individuals, employers, and the wider society.”

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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