Wake-up call over sleep and public health needed

Lack of sleep is creating a global public health challenge and a growing conflict between our biological needs and our social schedules, according to new studies published by the Blavatnik School of Government.

Findings show that early start times for work or school are often not in line with the body’s circadian rhythms. In the trade-off between extra time in bed and the socio-economic incentives of getting an income or education, many people are getting less sleep than recommended. However, the School’s Osea Giuntella and Fabrizio Mazzonna from the University of Lugano, find that the economic costs of getting less sleep are far greater than previously thought, having important effects on individuals’ productivity and health care costs.

Recent medical studies from University of Oxford researchers have analysed the negative impact of sleep deprivation on health. Neuroscientists at Oxford’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute have argued that having less than five hours of sleep a night should be treated in the same light as smoking and that forcing staff to work before 10am is making employees ill, exhausted and stressed.

Two Blavatnik School of Government Working Papers now provide further evidence of the effects of sleep deprivation in relation to public health policy and economic performance. The first, “If you don’t snooze you lose health and gain weight”, focuses on sleep deprivation in the USA, finding that it increases the likelihood of reporting poor health and the incidence of obesity. The second, “Circadian rhythms, sleep and cognitive skills. Evidence from an unsleeping giant”, focuses on the effect of sleep disturbances in the developing world, using results from the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study to look at the connection between sleep duration and cognitive skills.

Both papers gain evidence by looking at the relationship between circadian rhythms and sleep behaviour in order to study the effects of sleep deprivation on health and cognitive skills. The results are used to show that there is a positive relationship between sleep duration and economic performance.

Based on their research, the authors highlight the importance of developing a public awareness about the negative effect of sleep deprivation and suggest that reshaping social schedules in ways that promote sleeping may have non-trivial effects on health. They stress that while working schedules respond to economic incentives, their costs in terms of negative effects on health and human capital should not be underestimated. Sleep education programs should also become a central part of any programme aiming at reducing obesity and weight gain in populations at risk.

Read and Download the two papers:

The authors of the two papers are:

  • Osea Giuntella, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
  • Fabrizio Mazzonna, Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Lugano

The second paper was also co-authored by:

  • Wei Han, Research Officer at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford