SINGAPORE: If there is one topic most Singaporeans often talk about, it's that a huge number of us feel tired and sleep deprived most of the time, but can't seem to do anything meaningful to escape our situations.
Undergraduate Ng Chia Wee expressed frustration dealing with the tension between obtaining adequate sleep and the drive to excel in our work and studies in a recent commentary for Channel NewsAsia.
He painted a vivid picture: A community of like-minded students burning the midnight oil with dogged determination, holding resolutely to the belief that "this will all be worth it". These expressions of hard work and sacrifice in pursuit of excellence are admirable.
However, lest we romanticise the notion of sleep as a worthy sacrifice, the consequences of doing so need to be given due consideration.
LOSING SLEEP IMPACTS YOUR HEALTH
Being youthful and in good health may sometimes lend young Singaporeans a veil of impassivity as the related health consequences seem to be contained in an imperceptible, distant future. The reality of ill health, however, is not distant nor imperceptible.
One in nine Singaporeans have diabetes which can lead to blindness, kidney failure and lost limbs. One in eight Singaporeans suffer from a mental disorder, one in 10 will develop dementia, and cardiovascular diseases continue to be a leading cause of hospitalisation in Singapore.
READ: Unable to look sideways? Unusual signs of diabetes often unnoticed, ignored or denied, a commentary
Countless studies have shown that lack of sleep increases the risk of these conditions that require costly management, which places the burden of care on our family, affecting those around us.
While these conditions do not often affect 20 to 30 year olds, the risk increases between 40 and 70, an age bracket that constitutes a large segment of our workforce.
In addition, the effects of sleep on anxiety and depression can impact individuals at even younger ages, with high prevalence in adolescents and young adults.
BEING IN POORER HEALTH HURTS PRODUCTIVITY
On a population level, a 2016 RAND study reported the staggering economic costs of sleep loss and its harmful effects on companies and national economies.
Lower productivity, more sick days and fewer productive working years can chip off a country's growth.
Based on the size of a country’s workforce, its GDP, and known prevalence of short sleep using representative population surveys, it is estimated that the lack of sleep costs the America US$411 billion or 2.29 per cent of GDP each year.
In Japan, a society with a work and sleep culture much like Singapore, the estimated economic costs of sleep loss reached up to 2.92 per cent of its GDP in that same RAND study (which did not include Singapore).
Economist Marco Hafner writes:
If you're a well-slept person you tend to be more productive on average which subsequently has a positive effect on your long-term earnings.
Sleep loss stifles career progression, not just your present day work productivity. In extreme cases, developing a serious illness may lead to an extended period away from work, impacting your career progression.
HEALTH-SEEKING BEHAVIOURS AND EXCELLENCE ARE INSEPARABLE
We would only bear to sacrifice sleep if we think it is not essential.
Achieving seven to eight hours of sleep may not always be possible on a daily basis, and is not a cure-all, but it is imprudent to dismiss expert guidelines shaped by a wealth of knowledge amassed over decades of research, and declare that regularly getting sufficient sleep is an impossible feat.
We would not take the same fatalistic stance toward other health-seeking behaviours that improves performance in other aspects of our lives, like exercise or nutrition, yet we see getting enough sleep as an extravagance.
Throngs of office workers can be seen jogging around the Marina Barrage area every evening, many of whom plan to head back to the office to continue working post-exercise. This commitment to fit in time for exercise may even withstands busy periods as people recognise the benefits to performance and well-being that make exercise worth the time and effort.
Even high-performing teams in more industries are waking up to the insidious impact of disturbed sleep. Elite soccer clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Real Madrid have hired sleep consultants to help their players improve sleep to achieve peak performance on the field.
Public education and incentive programmes, such as the National Steps Challenge, can help achieve the needed behavioural changes and encourage more to adopt healthy lifestyles through gamification.
Such programmes are believed to have a net positive impact on the health and productivity of individuals, as well as the population as a whole - and we could afford to think about how to apply these to solve our national problem of not getting enough sleep.
SLEEP MORE AND WORK MORE
Why are we not getting enough sleep? This question is as complex as it is frustrating. A 24-hour day just seems too short for all the professional, family, and community activities that are important to us.
Ng Chia Wee aptly describes the conflict between the need to sleep and the desire to get more done, where the anxiety of not reaching our full potential deters us from heading to bed.
Certainly, spending more time asleep would mean less time working, but it comes at a cost when we are less focused, less energetic and less efficient. We also tend to make more mistakes and are more forgetful when we don't get enough rest.
Interestingly, just this year, students from Baylor University were invited to take part in a challenge which offered incentives if students managed to sleep an average of 8 hours a night during the week of their final exams.
Using a fitness wearable to track their sleep, researchers found that those who attained 8 hours of sleep did better than those who slept fewer hours.
When their sleep improved during the exam week, their grades did not suffer. So sleeping does not necessarily come at a cost to academic performance, contrary to popular fears.
Studies from our own lab have also found more hidden productivity benefits of sleep. In one experiment, Singapore students learned a set of biological facts, after which they were given time to take a break, cram the same materials further, or take a nap.
When tested later that day, students who napped, and those who spent the same period of time further cramming the material, had better memory performance than those who took a break but did not sleep. One week later, this memory benefit was still present for the nap group, but not for the group that used the time to cram more facts.
While we often think of sleep as unproductive time, the fact is active sleep processes are at work in the brain, transforming and reorganising the information we encounter during the day, working to strengthen our memory and help us gain new insights after sleep.
Furthermore, sleep offers mental health benefits. The restoration of positive emotions that result from a night of rest is an important resource in your arsenal to fend off annoyances and stress that arise with each task at work or assignment at school.
Shifting mindsets regarding sleep will be a first step towards improvement.
Obtaining seven to eight hours of sleep is surely difficult in a hectic life, but improving the quantity and quality of our sleep ought to be a priority since it is so essential to the excellence we seek.
Ruth Leong is a PhD student and Stijn Massar is a Senior Research Fellow, both at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Duke-NUS Medical School.