The High Price of Insomnia

In yet another sign Americans are trying to catch 40 winks whenever they can, Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Marissa Mayer was late for a meeting with clients at the Cannes advertising festival after she reportedly fell asleep. Last Tuesday, Interpublic Group put together a fancy dinner at L’Oasis for Mayer to mingle with marketers such as Mondelez International, but Mayer showed up two hours late and, according to reports, told people a nap had gone awry.

Workplace performance deteriorates when sleep is restricted to six hours per night for a week and does not improve after two nights of recovery sleep, according to a paper presented to the 2013 meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies by Alexandros Vgontzas, professor of psychiatry and endowed chair in sleep disorders medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine. Despite Mayer’s recent mishap, that paper found that women may actually be less affected than men by this workweek pattern of sleep loss.

Sleeplessness is a big business. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has over 2,500 sleep centers; their number has doubled since 2007 and increased fivefold over the past decade. It’s worth over $32 billion, it’s an even bigger economic problem — costing nearly twice that in lost productivity. The problem: some 28% of Americans are getting less than 6 hours sleep a night, even though the recommended number is 7 to 9 hours, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lack of sleep is a “public health epidemic” in the U.S., according to the CDC report. “Unintentionally falling asleep, nodding off while driving, and having difficulty performing daily tasks because of sleepiness all may contribute to these hazardous outcomes, the report says. Those experiencing a prolonged lack of sleep are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, and cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity, it adds. The economic costs now run into billions of dollars a year. Nearly a quarter of all workers are affected by sleeplessness, according to a 2011 study by Harvard Medical School. And insomnia costs an average of $2,280 per worker in reduced productivity every year — a total cost of $63.2 billion to the economy, the study says. That equates to 11 working days lost annually for each worker, says Ronald C. Kessler, lead author of the study and McNeil Family Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School.

So why are Americans losing sleep? Since the 2008 recession, more people are lying awake at night worrying about their financial situation and job security, says Nathaniel F. Watson, president of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. (In fact, one-third of Americans lose sleep over the economy, according to one 2009 poll by the National Sleep Foundation.) The rise in U.S. obesity rates is another major factor, Watson says. But others are less certain. “There are lots of pop-psychology theories,” Kessler says. “One thing we do know — it’s pervasive through all sections of society.”

Whatever the causes, consumers are spending billions of dollars to get some shut-eye. The “sleep market” industry is currently worth over $32 billion, up from nearly $24 billion four years ago, according to John LaRosa, research director at MarketData Enterprises, a market research company in Tampa. Some 70 million Americans suffer from sleeplessness. Desperate for the perfect night’s sleep, they’re buying sleeping pills, premium mattresses, white noise machines, sleeping masks, mobile phone apps and other sleep-related paraphernalia.

But people need help staying awake too, which is compounding the problem. “There’s an enormous amount of self-medication for sleeplessness in America,” Kessler says. “That’s one reason why the sales of super-caffeinated energy drinks are skyrocketing.” Sales of energy drinks have surged by 60% between from 2008 and 2012, and are expected to hit $21 billion by 2017, up from $12.5 billion in 2012, according to data from Packaged Facts, an industry publication. There are better ways of dealing with insomnia, Kessler says, like cutting down on caffeine and not playing on your smartphone or watching TV in bed late at night.

Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter for MarketWatch based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. This article originally appeared on and is reprinted by permission from, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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