THURSDAY, September 1, 2011 (Health.com) — People who have trouble sleeping rarely see their problem as an illness that requires treatment, or as an acceptable reason to call in sick. That mind-set may be hurting employers and employees alike by compelling people with insomnia to drag themselves to work and sleepwalk through the day, a new study suggests.
Researchers surveyed 7,428 employed people across the U.S. and found that 23% experienced some form of insomnia—such as difficulty falling asleep or nighttime waking—at least three times a week during the previous month, for at least 30 minutes at a stretch.
Not surprisingly, these sleep problems carried over into the workplace. Insomniacs were no more likely than their well-rested peers to miss work, but they were so consistently tired on the job that they cost their employers the equivalent of 7.8 days of work in lost productivity each year—an amount equal to an average of about $2,280 in salary per person.
Those productivity losses add up. The researchers, projecting these findings to the entire U.S. workforce, estimate that poor job performance stemming from insomnia drains more than $63 billion from the nation’s economy each year.
Most study participants did not physically miss work due to insomnia, says lead author Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. More often, they showed up too tired to effectively do their job (a phenomenon known as “presenteeism”).
“Employers these days want their workers to stay home if they’re sick. If they know you’re absent, they can at least find ways to fill in for you,” Kessler says. “But you can’t stay home every day if you’re chronically sleep deprived, so these people get in the habit of going to work and then not performing.”
About one-third of all U.S. adults experience weekly difficulties with nighttime sleep, and an estimated 50 to 70 million people complain of associated daytime impairment, the study notes. And while it’s hard to compare past and present research, insomnia does seem to be on the rise, says Clete Kushida, MD, a neurologist and sleep-medicine specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in Palo Alto, Calif.
“There appears to be more insomnia, given more work and family responsibilities, and more technological improvements and distractions,” says Dr. Kushida, who was not involved in the new study. “These result in more stress that can precipitate worsened sleep.”
Kessler’s study, published today in the journal Sleep, is an outgrowth of the American Insomnia Survey, a research project led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Harvard Medical School that began in 2008. The survey and new study were funded, respectively, by Sanofi-Aventis (the maker of Ambien) and Merck, which is developing a new insomnia drug currently in the final phase of clinical trials.
Next page: Industry involvement may prompt questions