Sleep-deprived South Africans are costing the economy billions, with lack of sleep linked to 15 leading causes of death, a recent study has found.
The cost to just one medical aid scheme of treating life-threatening diseases linked to sleeping less than the recommended eight hours a night is estimated at R22bn annually, according to a recent study conducted by Charles King, an MBA student at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
King set out to determine the expected savings in healthcare costs if 25 to 40-year-olds could be "converted" to healthy sleeping habits in a world that expects employees to be "always on", he said.
"Lack of sleep is not only related to workplace issues such as absenteeism, lack of productivity, poor work performance, and accidents – which have a direct cost impact on a business – but insufficient sleep has been directly linked with seven of the 15 leading causes of death.
"The research looked at the indirect costs of lack of sleep, particularly the cost to medical schemes of treating illnesses where inadequate sleep is a major risk factor. We asked what the potential savings would be to a medical scheme if individuals just got enough sleep," King said.
King gathered data on sleeping habits from 658 employees – men and women aged 25 to 40 – from a national financial services group. The sample group was sufficiently representative to draw conclusions about the relationship between hours of sleep and the risk of developing chronic diseases among the SA population in this age group, a statement issued on the study said.
The participants wore a device (a LifeQ-enabled Garmin Vivosmart HR) which tracked their sleeping behaviours and habits for three months while they went about their normal daily activities.
Men more sleep-deprived
King said two-thirds (64%) of the people whose sleeping habits he tracked slept for less than seven hours a night, with men more likely to be sleep-deprived.
The study included several alarming findings, including that one night of less than six hours sleep is equivalent to two totally sleepless nights in its impact on cognitive performance – impairing memory and concentration, and making risky decision-making more likely.
The risk factors for disease increased exponentially as sleep time decreased below the seven-hour mark.
King said that an average of less than seven hours sleep increased the risk of developing major depression by 22%, coronary artery disease by 73%, type 2 diabetes by up to 18%, and the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 50%.
Want to lose weight? Sleep more
Participants in King’s research who slept for less than six hours nightly had a body-mass index (BMI) 12% greater than those who slept for the recommended seven to nine hours, while those who slept for less than five hours a night had some of the highest BMI measurements.
BMI lowered as individuals got sufficient sleep.
Those who don’t get enough sleep, King said, are subject to a "double jeopardy" scenario – lack of sleep is a contributing factor to obesity, with both linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, cancers and diabetes.
People with habitually poor sleeping patterns also tend to have unhealthy lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol, smoking and too little exercise – combining these with insufficient sleep further increases the risk of developing chronic diseases, the statement added.
"Medical schemes carry the burden of these diseases, directly and indirectly. The costs need to be established, to identify the risk for the schemes if members do not adhere to healthy sleeping patterns and other lifestyle choices," King said.
More research and analysis was needed on the macro-economic and financial impacts of insufficient sleep on individuals, society and medical insurers, he said, as well as understanding and measuring the impact on people relying on the public health sector.
"Companies need to raise awareness of the benefits of adhering to a healthy sleep norm, like better work performance, less absenteeism, less injuries on duty and lower risk of developing life-threatening disease.
"Doctors who interact with patients must be aware of and communicate the risks of unhealthy sleep habits," King said.