More than one third of American adults report getting less than 7 hours of sleep on weekdays, and many of them try to sleep extra-long on weekends to make up for it.

This isn’t a particularly healthy way to live — insufficient sleep is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a host of other physical ailments. Drowsy driving causes around 80,000 automobile accidents every year, 1,000 of which are typically fatal.

The simple reason for shortchanging sleep on the weekdays? Work. A team of researchers examined nearly 125,000 responses to the American Time Use Survey to calculate two things: first, how much sleep we’re getting, and second, what we’re doing instead of sleeping.

Compared to normal sleepers, so-called “short sleepers” — those who are getting 6 hours or less on weeknights — worked 1.5 more hours on weekdays and nearly 2 hours more on weekends and holidays. Perhaps not surprisingly, “the highest odds of being a short sleeper were found among adults working multiple jobs, who were 61 percent more likely than others to report sleeping 6 hours or less on weekdays,” according to a press release about the study.

To put it another way: to the extent that we’re trading sleep for work, our jobs are literally killing us.

Aside from work, commuting was the activity most likely to compete with sleep for time, followed by socializing, sleeplessness (e.g., lying in bed unable to sleep), and personal grooming. That latter finding led to this dry observation from the authors: “Although a certain level of body hygiene is important for social and physical well-being, excessive time spent in these activities may reduce sleep time at both ends of the sleep period.”


TV-watching was ranked only 9th in the list of activities exchanged for less sleep.

The researchers found no difference in sleep time between private sector and government workers. But interestingly, the self-employed had significantly lower odds of being a short sleeper. This finding led to the researchers prescribing greater flexibility in work schedules, particularly in work start time, as one policy change that could help people sleep more: “making the work start time more flexible may help increase sleep time; even if total time spent working is kept constant,” they conclude.

They also found that for every work schedule or class started later in the morning, respondents’ reported getting 20 minutes more sleep. More flexibility in work start times would thus help people naturally disposed to night-owl hours. Research suggests that this would lead not only to more productivity in the workplace, but also fewer instances of ethical lapses while on the clock.

Beyond that, the more sleep we get the healthier we are. To the extent that healthier employees are more productive employees, policy changes that let workers get more sleep could have benefits for businesses’ bottom lines.

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