11/19/2012 08:22 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

The Sky-High Cost of Insomnia

Do you have difficulty falling asleep, tossing and turning for a long while before finally drifting off? Are you someone who wakes up in the middle of the night with thoughts racing in a way that makes it hard to fall back asleep? Maybe you're someone who sleeps for a few hours but wakes early, unable to complete a full night of sleep.

These are all signs of insomnia, the most common sleep disorder among adults. As much as 40 percent of the U.S. population suffers from insomnia at some point, and 15 percent or more of U.S. adults grapple with chronic insomnia, where symptoms persist for a month or more at a time.

It's all too common for people to shrug off their episodes of insomnia, to do their best to function and cope with daytime tiredness, fatigue, and mental distraction that result from sleeping poorly. This kind of "power through" strategy is rampant in our busy world, but there's no real escape from the consequences that insomnia can bring. At an individual level, insomnia raises risks to health, compromises quality of life, and impairs ability to function at one's best at work and in personal relationships.

There are also broader, collective consequences to society that come from insomnia. One study attempted to quantify the economic costs of the sleep disorder and found insomnia is associated with an estimated $31 billion in workplace costs resulting from accidents and errors that happen on the job.

Researchers analyzed data from 4,991 adults, all of whom were employed and had health insurance. Using a diagnostic questionnaire, researchers evaluated participants for insomnia as well as collected information on 18 other chronic health conditions that might affect workplace performance. They examined the incidence of insomnia and these other health problems to determine a possible link between the insomnia and workplace errors and accidents. To narrow in on the financial cost of insomnia-related problems in the workplace, researchers inquired specifically about accidents or mistakes on the job that resulted in "damage or work disruption with a value of $500 or more." They found that a link between insomnia and workplace accidents or errors was both common and costly. Among the study results:

  • An estimated 20 percent of adults had experienced some form of insomnia for at least a year.
  • Insomnia was associated with 7 percent of costly workplace accidents and errors and with 23.7 percent of the total costs of these problems.
  • Based on their results, researchers estimated that a total of 274,000 accidents and errors transpire in the workplace every year, as a result of insomnia, at a total estimated cost of $31 billion.

This is not the first study to assess the increased risk of insomnia-related accidents or their costs:

  • One study examined the link between insomnia and the risk of injury both in the workplace and outside it. Researchers looked at rates of injury among nearly 5,000 adults who had suffered from insomnia for at least a year. They found that people with insomnia were significantly more likely to experience injury both at work and outside of work than those who did not have the sleep disorder.
  • One large-scale study investigated the link between insomnia and work productivity, activity impairment, and health-related quality of life. Researchers analyzed data from nearly 20,000 adults -- some with insomnia and others without. They found that people with insomnia had significantly greater rates of absenteeism from work and significantly greater losses of productivity at work. Those with insomnia also had lower quality of life scores with regard to both physical and mental health.
  • Another study examined the effects of insomnia on work performance and the resulting costs to the economy. Researchers analyzed data from 7,428 employed adults in the U.S. Based on information gathered in a questionnaire, they estimated that nearly a quarter of participants -- 23.2 percent -- were suffering from insomnia. Researchers found a per-person loss of 7.8 days of productivity per year linked to insomnia, whether through days missed from work or impaired performance on the job. Applying these results across the U.S. workforce, researchers estimated a cost of $63 billion in reduced productivity and performance related to insomnia.

Rates of insomnia are high across both the developed and the developing world. Here in the United States, nearly one-third of workers are getting by on no more than six hours of sleep per night. We're living in an age where sleep is challenged by the very technological advancements that are supposed to make life easier and more streamlined. Clearly, it's time to stop shrugging off the consequences of insomnia and other sleep disorders, consequences that include an incredibly high price tag, both in dollars and in health.


Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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