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About 1 in 4 U.S. Workers Has Insomnia

Workers with insomnia who are too sleepy to fully function on the job cost the U.S. a whopping $63 billion in lost productivity each year, according to a nationwide survey.

Sept. 1, 2011 -- Workers with insomnia who are too sleepy to fully function on the job cost the U.S. a whopping $63 billion in lost productivity each year, according to a nationwide survey.

Nationally, insomnia is responsible for 252 million lost days of productivity each year, even though most sleep-deprived people show up for work.

That averages out to about eight lost days of productivity annually for every sleep-deprived worker.

Chronic insomnia is most often defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep or having non-restorative sleep on most nights for at least a month.

"Americans are not missing work because of insomnia," says Harvard Medical School professor of health care policy Ronald C. Kessler, PhD, who led the study. "They are still going to their jobs but accomplishing less because they are tired."

Women Sleepier Than Men

The survey included just over 7,400 nationally representative workers who were asked about their sleep habits and work performance as part of a larger insomnia study.

Based on the survey answers, Kessler and colleagues concluded that:

  • 23% of U.S. workers are sleep deprived due to insomnia.
  • The prevalence of insomnia was lowest for older workers. Just 14% of people 65 and older reported the problem.
  • 27% of working women in the U.S. have insomnia, compared to 20% of working men.
  • The cost to employers in terms of lost productivity is roughly $2,300 each year for every employee with chronic insomnia.

"When we actually did the calculations we were amazed at the extent of the problem," Kessler tells WebMD. "It seems unbelievable that more than 250 million days a year of lost productivity can be attributed to insomnia. Yet this hasn't really been on anyone's radar."

Work-Based Insomnia Screening

Kessler says now that the productivity cost of insomnia is known, the focus should be on finding ways to address the problem.

About one in five people with insomnia receive drug or behavioral treatments, he says.

The study was paid for by the drug companies Merck and Sanofi-Aventis, which markets the sleep drug Ambien. It appears in the September issue of the journal Sleep.

Despite the funding, Kessler says the findings should not be interpreted as meaning that more people should be taking sleep drugs.

"Worker screening programs and programs to teach workers good sleep hygiene may be very effective and could actually save employers money," he tells WebMD. "These programs might help people feel a lot better and get more done on the job."

Donna Arand, PhD, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says the study highlights a problem that is well recognized by sleep specialists.

Arand directs the sleep disorders center at Kettering Hospital in Dayton, Ohio.

"What struck me most about the study was the fact that workers really weren't calling in sick," she says. "People with chronic insomnia are going to work but they aren't functioning at their maximum. We all experience this from time to time, but for people with insomnia it could be happening every day."

Good Sleep Habits

Arand says people with and without sleep problems can benefit by learning and practicing good sleep habits, or sleep hygiene.

"One of the most important things is to try to get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends," she says. "Routine is the key."

Among her other suggestions:

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed. Even though alcohol acts as a system depressant and can help people fall asleep, it tends to have the opposite effect three or four hours later when the alcohol leaves the system.
  • Create a quiet and relaxing bedroom environment and reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex.
  • The bedroom should not be too hot, too cold, or too bright.
  • Establish a relaxing bedroom routine and avoid emotionally stimulating conversations or activities before bedtime.

"You wouldn't want to do your taxes immediately before going to bed," she says.

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