“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”– Wilson Mizner

Wilson Mizner could not have been any more accurate. Walk around the streets of Perth and all you seem to see is wave after wave of people who could do with a few minutes more kip.

Maybe there’s a reason so many of us pile into the nearest cafe, looking for another caffeine hit to get us through the day. And when we get home, after blasting music into our heads through our iPhones to help stay awake, we collapse on to the lounge where we fight the urge to snooze away.

Anyone with children quickly realises that a “sleep-in” is now anything beyond 6.30am.

With summer quickly approaching, the draining impact of hot days, lots of sunshine and warm nights points to even more grouchy people. But what if we looked at sleep as a workplace issue?

There’s plenty of discussion about Australia’s so-called productivity crisis (even though measures of productivity are improving) with a focus on working conditions, wages and education.

Yet there’s no mention of something every one of us needs — sleep.

Thankfully, there are some researchers in the economics world looking at sleep and productivity. And their findings are more than interesting.

In a recently released paper by researchers Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Shrader, they found that an extra hour of sleep is so important in terms of productivity, it is worth up to an extra year of schooling or $6000 annually. That’s right. One more hour a day under the covers could boost your wage up to 16 per cent.

How could this be?

The researchers used information collected as part of a long-term study into time use. That information was primarily aimed at how Americans went about using their time — whether it was at work or play. Almost all previous research ignored the time spent sleeping.

But Messrs Gibson and Shrader pulled out the data on when people went to sleep, the amount of time they caught catching zzzs, and also their overall pay rates. And then they correlated that with where people lived. For places on the same latitude and in the same time zone, people further east got a little more sleep than their westerly cousins. That’s because of when the sun sets and our body starts to take its cues to get under the covers.

Now feed in what we know about sleep. For instance, people who don’t get enough come out poorly when it comes to cognitive tests. You know if a workmate hasn’t had enough sleep by the way they are easily angered.

Several studies have shown people without adequate sleep take higher-risk decisions (which might be good on a currency trading floor but not so good if your job is to move dangerous loads).

When it comes to the workplace, Gibson and Shrader reckon sleep is a vital element to overall productivity. “Sleep is arguably the third most important determinant of productivity, following ability and human capital, ” they note.

So when Gibson and Shrader pulled apart the time diaries of thousands of Americans over the best part of a decade, they found the connection between sleep, productivity and wages.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be the biggest surprise. An alert person who gets to work immediately and ploughs into their day without stopping for coffee or splashing water on their face or simply collapsing at their desk should be more productive than their sleep-deprived workmate.

But by linking a defined increase in sleep with a wage outcome, the research has gone further than anyone else in this field. The pair realise just what they’ve uncovered.

“A worker who desires higher wages might be able to obtain them by increasing sleep, ” they said.

“Firms might be able to increase profit by varying start times, providing workers with incentives to sleep more, or with information interventions (e.g. information on how to improve sleep quality of consistency).

“Governments conducting cost-benefit analyses of policies that change sleep time, for example daylight saving time, should consider the productivity effects to design efficient policies.”

The obvious question, however, is where would you find that extra hour of sleep?

Getting to bed earlier might provide some of the required snooze, but for most of us that means giving up on something else. That might be time in front of the TV or the iPad or just talking to a partner. And, as the aforementioned parents know, trying to get a little extra sleep at the end of the night is almost impossible because of children running about the house and arguing with their siblings.

The suggestion by Gibson and Shrader, to vary the starting times of workers, could actually be useful in terms of dealing with road congestion.

Instead of everyone getting on our increasingly crowded roads at the same time every day, people who enjoy an extra hour or so of sleep could come in a little later (and leave a little later). vOf course, it all seems too easy.

There is a reason that humans have dramatically reduced their sleeping time over the past few hundred years. Artificial light has meant we don’t need to go to sleep when it gets dark and get up when the sun rises.

And we’ve used that artificial light to make our economy more efficient (by running businesses into the dark) and to make our lives more exciting (from nights at the pub to watching football under the lights).

Perhaps the issue really at play here is understanding the real drivers of productivity in the workplace.

Simply working longer hours (as some employers imagine) is not productivity. Achieving more in the same time frame is what real productivity is about.

Ultimately, there are only 24 hours in the day. With no chance of slotting an extra hour into the day, we have to make choices about how best to manage those existing 24.

Maybe as a community we have simply decided that sleep is a “luxury” we can do without. But Gibson and Shrader have given us something to think about — before we nod off to sleep.


© The West Australian

For more on Business and Employment: thewest/business.com.au