Demos Daily: Dream On

It’s official: we’re losing sleep.

This isn’t at all surprising.  National anxiety levels are through the roof, as each day brings new, terrifying figures and few comforting facts.  Yet the impact of our growing sleep deficits is rarely considered in policy terms. How does a sleep deprived workforce affect our national productivity?  Are family units across the country being undermined through sheer exhaustion? And what could Westminster possibly do about it?

Back in 2004, Demos looked at the implications of a perpetually tired nation, and posited a new future, where protecting the country’s sleep became key to public policy.  Read an extract from Charles Leadbeater’s Dream On below, or read the full report here.

 

I don’t know when I first felt this hopelessness, but it’s really getting to me now. I have a job and I make money to support myself, though at times it seems I’m just working and making money to work harder. I don’t sleep too well, and I only eat ready meals of questionable nutritional value but that’s all I can get at the convenience store when I get home. I leave the apartment at 5.50am to get to the station for my train. I cannot remember the last time I saw the apartment in daylight. I am on the train by 6.15am. I see the same faces at the station every day but I do not know any of them. I wonder if they look as tired as I do. I’m home with a takeaway meal and some kind of drink usually by 11pm, but it can be later. I get out of the train and realise I’ll be back on it again in a few hours. Something in me almost hopes for an earthquake to shake things up a bit. At least then I’d be released from the monotony of my life now.

This extract from a diary of a 43-year-old office worker, presented at the Nasubi Gallery in Tokyo in 2000, may be a little extreme, but it will resonate with millions of people who feel that their lives are painfully squeezed by working too long and sleeping too little.

There is mounting evidence that extended and flexible hours of work are exacting a growing toll, especially on households in which both parents work. Not only is this having an impact on hard working parents, it is also affecting children, who need regular and sound sleep even more than adults.

We are taking risks without knowing how to calculate the costs and benefits of our actions. Sleep is vital to brain development in children and remains vital to learning, emotion and memory in adults. A society which sees sleep as enforced downtime, a maintenance period to be minimised, is taking huge risks.

More work, longer hours and less sleep does not mean higher productivity, better quality and more innovation. Often it means the opposite, especially in an economy in which how creatively we work matters as much as how long we work.

Sleep is one of the missing ingredients in the growing debate about the work–life balance. During his spell out of government, to spend more time with his family, Alan Milburn highlighted the need for new policies on working time to allow parents to sustain their families while also holding down demanding jobs. A string of recent books – among them Madeleine Bunting’s Willing Slaves: how the overwork culture is ruling our lives and Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow: how a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed – have made the case for a sanctuary, away from the incessant pressures of work. For many, sleep is just that sanctuary.

Our lives are not just divided into work and leisure: sleep is the missing ingredient. How we sleep is a reflection of how we work and spend our leisure time. While we devote huge amounts of time, effort and money to work and leisure, sleep is largely treated as an afterthought. Yet as more people feel tired or exhausted by long work schedules and commuting, compounded by the demands of family life and the allure of the 24/7 society, it is clear that sleep should be central to the debate about our quality of life.

This poses a huge challenge for politicians. The chatter in the office or the wine bar, on the train and at home slumped on the sofa might be about feeling frayed at the edges and wanting a decent night’s sleep. Yet it is very difficult for politicians to connect with this lowlevel civil war between work, leisure and sleep being waged in daily life. There is no department for sleep, no budget or constituency. Sleep is one of those pervasive quality-of-life issues that everyone talks about – except politicians, in part because they fear that they will get the tone wrong. Politicians themselves are dreadful role models, working all hours. To admit that you need sleep is seen as a sign of weakness. Advocating measures to protect sleep suggests intervening in the bedroom or yet more regulating of hours of work. However, if sleep – or, rather, our lack of it – does not become central to the debate on work–life balance, we will be missing a vital aspect to our quality of life.

Read the full report here.