LOVE LETTERS TO TANZANIA : Can we afford to fall asleep at the wheel?

Friday February 16 2018



By Sabine Barbara

Most of us know people who brag about how little sleep they get. Often, they present themselves as active, energetic people who succeed despite very little rest, like purportedly some highly successful entrepreneurs and political leaders – past and present.

If their undertone makes you feel inadequate or lazy for seeking a solid eight hours’ sleep per night, if you now wonder whether you are genetically inferior to those who claim to never sleep more than four hours a night, ignore them! Instead you should be proud of yourself if taking your quest for enough sleep seriously.

Very few people tell the truth about needing very little sleep – less than three per cent of the population, according to scientists. Many self-proclaimed “short sleepers” actually force themselves to stay awake because of societal pressures and the misconception that surviving on four hours sleep per night denotes supremacy. For many, voluntary sleep deprivation is simply a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the competition.

Boasting about being sleep deprived has become a badge of honour for modern executives who glorify long working hours. Politicians too, brag about sacrificing sleep, expecting us to be impressed. However, sleep deprived leaders should not be celebrated as exemplary citizens. They are setting a bad example for the rest of society and one wonders if some of their decisions would be more measured and judicious if made after a good night’s sleep.

Becoming competitive about sleep can be dangerous and is therefore not the hallmark of a good leader, efficient executive or top surgeon. Research into the effect of inadequate sleep on the human brain shows that sleep deprived people are at increased risk of physical and psychological illness and may pose a risk for others, in particular in occupations where human error or poor judgement could kill someone. Who wants an overtired air traffic controller, emergency room doctor or truck driver?

Fatigue is often a contributing factor in airplane and train crashes. US researchers say up to 40 per cent of accidents involving heavy trucks are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel. The rising popularity of dash cam’s (small video recorders which motorists attach to their windscreen to continuously record traffic while the vehicle is in motion) delivers a shocking truth: a frighteningly common cause of fatal accidents is drivers of passenger cars nodding off.


Even in low risk occupations sleep deprivation leads to workplace accidents, some of which result in loss of life. Sacrificing sleep to add a few hours to the working day may be unavoidable during times of crisis, but can have devastating effects if practised long-term.

Lack of sleep undermines rational decision-making and adversely affects our health, memory, ability to learn and emotional stability. It causes mood swings and poor impulse control. The chronically sleep deprived age more quickly and are more prone to disability and premature death. Apparently even short-term sleep deprivation results in some brain tissue loss.

The existence of entire organisations with the sole purpose to educate us about sleep, like the non-profit National Sleep Foundation in Washington DC, highlights its importance. In 2017, Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation estimated the cost of inadequate sleep to the national economy to be A$66.3 annually, including health system costs, productivity losses, tax losses and welfare payments to people debilitated by regular lack of sleep.

We should thank anyone trying to get sufficient sleep every night, making our roads, workplaces and hospitals safer. Every insomniac who reduces lifestyle factors which interfere with healthy sleep, such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption, should be applauded.

Sadly, not everyone can afford the luxury of eight hours sleep per night. Life circumstances may demand more waking hours to feed the family or to work while completing formal studies. But those who can sleep, should.