The High Cost of Poor Sleep


Dr. Morin co-authored a recent study documenting the economic burden of insomnia that suggests employers are bearing a large chunk of those costs through absence and reduced productivity. Of a $6.6 billion total cost estimate for Quebec alone, insomnia-related productivity losses were calculated as $5.0 billion.
Dr. Morin cautions that while many employers might be wary of implementing programs to help employees deal with insomnia, the costs of not treating sleep disorders is far greater than the cost of treatment.


1. What was the purpose of your study?

We tried to quantify the burden of insomnia, not just on employers, but also on society at large. Some of that burden is borne by employers, some by the healthcare system. We looked at the impact of insomnia on quality of life, on healthcare utilization, absenteeism at work, reduced productivity at large and its impact on accidents.

2. On average, a person with insomnia costs society about $5,000/year. How much of that amount are employers paying?

About 10% of that amount is driven by direct costs such as consultations, medications, both prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and alcohol. The remaining 90% of the total costs are related to absenteeism and reduced productivity at work. The indirect costs of insomnia far outweigh what it costs to treat it.

3. Are employers aware of the economic burden of insomnia?

Some are, but we’re just starting to document it. Even with these data, we can’t say the full cost is due to insomnia because it often co-exists with depression, for instance. In the end though, insomnia is costing them a lot of money. Now we need to see if we can reduce this economic burden through better treatment.

About 10% of the adult population report chronic insomnia. And if we add more acute short-term episodes of insomnia to that, then it’s about three times higher. It matters that occasional insomnia often becomes chronic, which brings with it an increased risk of depression and hypertension.

4. What are some of the impacts of insomnia on employees?

People show up to work but they have trouble concentrating, completing simple tasks, and paying attention. This is presenteeism. They don’t work to their normal level and ability. This is also why it is more difficult to sensitize employers because it’s not as obvious as someone who’s suffering from a back injury.

5. What’s the impact of insomnia on absenteeism and productivity?

Those with insomnia report an average of ten days lost from work annually. And of those, about four and a half days are specifically due to insomnia. Good sleepers report an average of three days lost annually, but none are specifically due to sleep problems.

People with insomnia report the equivalent of 45 days of reduced productivity. About half of that is specifically attributed to insomnia. Good sleepers average ten days of reduced productivity, of which three are attributed to poor sleep.

6. Was there anything in the study that surprised you?

What was surprising was that so many people use alcohol to put themselves to sleep. And we know that alcohol is a depressant of the central nervous system. It may help you fall asleep faster but there’s a price to pay in that the sleep will be more fragmented and more impaired in the second half of the night. So it’s generally not a good solution.

7. What’s your advice for employers?

We often hear that people don’t want to talk about their sleep problems because they feel they’re not taken seriously. If you acknowledge you have a sleep problem, it means you don’t have control over a good part of your life and that’s really difficult for some people.

There are effective treatments available. Sleep medications are sometimes indicated and can be helpful for situational insomnia due to acute stress, schedule changes, and jet lag. But there are nondrug treatments that also work well. If employers had a short-term program to deal with these sleep problems they could probably prevent chronic insomnia and certainly reduce the burden it creates over time.

There are some very effective, brief intervention programs that can be promoted and implemented in the work environment. Self-help approaches, such as DVDs, videos, telephone consultations, are starting to be validated and are available to employees.

What we have to do now in terms of research is document whether these programs can reduce the economic burden of insomnia.


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