Slumbers & Yardsticks

The Cost of Staying Awake
& the Fattening of the Kilo

This just in: American workers are having a hard time catching sleep, a Harvard research found. In 2011, they burned through a staggering $32 billion in sleeping pills, and insomnia cost the economy almost twice as much. Worse yet: word is that the kilo is getting fatter too.
Bills and jobs seem to be keeping people awake at night, according to a sleep medicine industry group. Apparently, no one has spent a second of that time or money partying either, which is sad. As for the kilo, it’s been said that it’s gained 80 micrograms in the 20th century alone.
Yes, scientists do study that sort of thing, bless their souls, and somehow that’s good for the general morale. For despite the daily beatings and the gruesome rat race, many will find comfort in the fact that they’re not alone. But how could the kilo let it go like that, that’s what we want to know.
Before we get to that, though, let’s add that other things that we waste our time with also have a dollar figure attached to it, and some are not nearly as ‘fun’ as worrying about that extra bottle of wine we brought that blew the credit card limit. Take standing idling in traffic, for instance. A whole $90 billion down the drain, or rather, out of the exhausting pipes.
Had a sick pet? Again, you were not alone: almost $38 billion were spent taking time off, getting medicines not covered by your plan, spending some quality time with them at home, we’ve all been there. And remember that umbrella you’ve misplaced and now wish you hadn’t? it adds up to $34 billion, only on the account that now you can’t stop sneezing.
We can always add the caveat that what research of this kind misses is the common sense that we all need some time to kick the wind, and just watch that cat video someone has sent you in the middle of your shift. Your mate in the next cubicle should be thankful, since you have some exciting ways of stop thinking about killing him, during the day.
Out at the Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France, they have a small cylinder, made of a platinum-iridium alloy, that has been the yardstick by which we measure what a kilo should weight. The International Prototype Kilogram has become a relic of another age, as today most other measurements depend on physical constants.
As Nicolas Bakalar writes on the NYTimes, the meter, for example, is measured by a completely different method: it’s the equivalent of ‘the distance traveled by light in a vaccum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.’ Which makes the kilo an old-fashioned standard, we got that, but why it’s getting fat and why should we care about it?
People get fat eating, while the hermetically sealed kilo-stand-in cylinder is gaining weight by catching mercury deposits and growing hydrocarbons on its surface. And we mean, very tiny amounts of the stuff, that 80 micrograms figure mentioned above. That’s a lot; the smallest grain of sand one can find is about 600 micrograms, compares Bakalar.
Guess who stands to get affected by such an opulence? why, drug companies, of course, perhaps even those that manufacture sleeping pills. See, it all comes together, and in case you’re too concerned about the kilo’s er cholesterol, don’t be. Newcastle University Prof. Peter Cumpson and colleague Naoko Sano have envisioned a way to keep it clean: to bathe it.

Somehow related to the chain of reasons stealing the sleep of U.S. workers is obesity, as people who stay awake usually eat in order to fill the time, or just because it placates the anxiety of being up all night. Lack of slumber is also behind work-related injuries and their costs, while over time, sleep deprivation itself becomes a problem.
Along comes then, medication, eagerly prescribed or self-administered, and down the rabbit hole we all go. The Harvard Medical School study authored by Ronald C. Kessler connects insomnia to reduced productivity and equates the rising costs to some 11 working days lost annually for each worker.
Behind the pragmatism of blaming workers for worrying too much, when they actually should, and putting tags on the costs of their desperate strategies to remain functional in a particularly competitive and harsh market, there is a more sensible issue raised by the study: public health.
Not of the insurance companies, for sure, which are really feasting on the increased share of their income active workers are pretty much throwing at them, with not much result. The way more dangerous crisis lurking behind the numbers is the failing health of the American worker, and how it’s shaving our productive edge.
Apart from Asian labor markets, the American worker averages more days at their jobs, and less on vacation, than any other workforce in the world. But whereas countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand have long ago integrated education and other activities to compensate for their overtiring schedules, in the U.S. workers only, well, work.

And more so than ever, with longer hours, higher levels of stress, more competition by ever younger candidates, all the while earning wages that compared negatively with 1990s levels. In other words, it’s work all day, and worry all night. And that if you’re part of the current lucky, and dwindling, bunch of regularly employed Americans.
An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report took some labor stats for a spin, and compared the average American worker’s 1,797 hours in 2011, or about 34.5 hours per week, with other countries. It found that the next nation to come somewhat close to the U.S. is Germany, with its 1,330 annual hours per person and 25.6 hours per week.
The U.S. labor market also surfers from a crucial misconception that winds up affecting workers and hurting the economy: to sleep is the same as being lazy, or depressed, so people pretend they don’t need as much as they actually do. Only now, a tiny sliver of companies recognize the need for its workers to be well rested to improve productivity.
So while some are already talking openly about ‘nap time,’ and ‘hours of sleep,’ in the great majority of workplaces throughout the country such themes are still considered anathema. Or, typical of the culture, a demand that only affect older workers. Therefore, the rise in sleeping pills consumption, mood ‘stabilizers’ and other palliative therapies that ultimately fail everyone.
There’s a simple way to find out whether you are sleep deprived, or need to stop popping pills and actually hit the sack more often during the day: sit down in a dark and silent room, and close your eyes for say, five minutes (it won’t be easy, we know). When the time is up, check your watch. Most people will find out that they actually passed out for much longer than that.


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