In Japan the phenomena of over-tired office workers who hardly can keep their eyes open even has a special word: inemuri – "sleeping while present". Photo: Agence France-Presse
In Japan the phenomena of over-tired office workers who hardly can keep their eyes open even has a special word: inemuri – "sleeping while present". Photo: Agence France-Presse

The hidden costs of Asia’s ‘walking dead’

Studies shows that people in Asia suffer more from sleep deprivation than people in the West but insomnia is doing more harm than just making people grumpy and unhealthy – it kills creativity and lowers work output

Anywhere you go in major cities in Japan, China or other Asian countries, you will see office workers slumbering in public areas – in metro trains, parks or even in restaurants. The cozy big armchairs at Starbucks are highly sought-after spots during lunch hour.

Studies shows that people in Asia suffer more from sleep deprivation than people in the West. About half of all full-time workers in Asian cities say they don’t get enough sleep, and that the problem is getting worse every year. In Japan the phenomena of over-tired office workers who hardly can keep their eyes open even has a special word: inemuri – “sleeping while present”.

But lack of sleep is doing more harm than just making people grumpy and unhealthy – it kills creativity and lowers work output.

According to several sleep experts interviewed by Asia Times, sleep deprivation has harmful effects on your mood, ability to focus, emotional intelligence, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. Skipping sleep dumbs people down and turns office workers into “walking dead” with dark bags under their eyes. Not optimal if you aim to be a sharp, creative decision maker.

“Many sleep deprivation experiments have shown degradation in a wide range of cognitive functions, such as attention, during the biological night and on the day after sleep loss,” said professor Michael Chee, director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

“In other words, depriving oneself of sleep, no matter whether it is for a couple of hours that night or for the entire night, will only result in poorer waking performance the following day.”

What’s more, skipping sleep comes with a cost that most people aren’t consulted about – increased risk of diabetes, stroke, heart attack and Alzheimer’s sisease if the sleep loss is chronic.

“Talk about ‘hidden costs’,” Chee added ironically.

A new report from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen said that hospitals received patients in all ages that were suffering from lack of sleep, and concluded that sleeplessness were associated with people’s fast-paced lives, work pressure and living environment. About half of all people in the city, famous for its fast moving technology companies and buzzing startups, suffer from sleep deprivation of some kind, according to another report.

In mainland China, some 40 percent of all people in China suffer from sleep disorder, with 70 percent of children sleeping too few hours, data shows.

People in Hong Kong are however ranked as being most sleep deprived in the Asia Pacific region, according to insurance company AIA’s Healthy Living Index. While Hong Kong adults would ideally like to get 8 hours of sleep a night, in reality they only sleep 6.5 hours on average.

“Inadequate sleep could lead to fatigue, poor concentration, slow in reaction time, and prone to accidents”, says Dr Samson Fong of the Hong Kong Society of Sleep Medicine.

A Japanese government white paper stated that nearly half of all full-time workers say they do not get enough sleep, citing long overtime hours as a main reason.

Dr Esther Yuet Ying Lau, assistant professor at the department of psychology at the Education University of Hong Kong, says that inadequate sleep is damaging for work quality.

“This phenomenon is common in fast-paced cities but the situation is most astonishing in Asia. The industriousness and competitiveness ingrained in many Asia cultures are culprits for the sleeplessness in prosperous Asian cities. The most alarming thing is that most governments seem to be unaware of the issue,” she said.

Lack of sleep can also be seen in terms of financial numbers. A study by not-for-profit research organization Rand Europe found that productivity losses at work occur through a combination of absenteeism, employees not being at work, and presenteeism, where employees are at work when they are ill and consequently work to a lower standard.

The study – the first of its kind – said that lack of sleep is a drag of up to US$138 billion a year on Japan’s economy, or about 2.9 per cent of gross domestic product. By simply increasing nightly sleep from under six hours to between six and seven hours could add US$75.7 billion to the Japanese economy. The equivalent number for the United States is US$411 billion a year, which is 2.28 per cent of the country’s economy.

Another US study has estimated the annual costs of insomnia to be up to US$107.5 billion. Almost half of of individuals with frequent sleep disturbances report missing work or events, or making errors at work, compared to 15 percent of healthy sleepers.

“While a boozy lunch on work time is no longer acceptable, neuroscience shows that it is probably safer to be drunk than sleep impaired once you hit a certain level. Tiredness has played a factor in many major disasters over recent decades and continues to kill many thousands of people each year,” Dr Jessica Payne, Head of Notre Dame’s Sleep, Stress and Memory Research Lab, told HRreview.

“Sleep deprivation is bad for businesses. It kills startups and can be particularly damaging to organizations that rely on selling creative services for a living. Consistently burning the midnight oil can trigger a downward spiral in mental health and business performance.”

Creativity needs a rested mind if it is to flourish.

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