A New Poverty… of Sleep While the world is poised to end poverty-induced hunger, it has to make serious efforts to end the grievous malady of sleep deprivation.


For decades now, world hunger is a problem we have fought. In recent years, thanks to the growing affluence due to overall economic development and investments in sustainable development by the philanthropic super-rich, ­impressive advances have been made in providing food for all. The problem is by no means solved. But there is incontrovertible evidence that we could progress to the day when the food crisis would be resolved almost completely.

Meanwhile, a new poverty has practically all of humanity in its vice-like grip: the poverty of sleep. Unlike its predecessor — the poverty of food — the poverty of sleep makes no distinction based on race, creed, nationality or affluence. Everybody worldwide seems sleep deprived. There is hope that if the world grew sufficiently affluent, the world hunger problem would be solved. The poverty of sleep, by comparison, seems to be exacerbated by affluence. In the past, when the GDP of nations was much lower than today, people slept longer and more soundly. It seems almost axiomatic that the richer we become, the less we will sleep.

Sleep is at least as vital to well- being as food is. It is the quiet during which the body does all the reparative and scavenging work. Damaged tissues are restored, inflammation healed, toxins removed and mental health refreshed to enable meeting the challenges of the next day. Lack of sleep is increasingly killing humanity at vary-ing paces. Medical data linking lack of sleep to the early and often irreversible onset of cardiac diseases, diabetes and Alzheimer’s is on the rise. These diseases are striking their victims in their youth. For example, doctors are discovering even children below 10 are not automatically protected from the devastation of hypertension.

It would be the greatest irony to have humanity wiped out the day the hunger problem is solved because all of us slept too little. It would be no less an irony if we fully traded one poverty for another.

Why do people sleep less?

There seem to be two primary reasons that people sleep less.

The first reason is that they are overworked. Workers, regardless of which part of the world they inhabit, are working more hours than ever in the past. These hours extend well past the contracted 8 or 9 hours they are supposed to work.

So who or what is to blame? Apparently global competition, which forces business corporations and even governments to produce higher quality and more innovative outputs while vying to attract resources. The world economy, by its current design, does not allow people to sleep.

As one employee complained, the sun is always rising in some part of the world.

Witness the case of the Indian IT/BPO industry. As one employee complained, the sun is always rising in some part of the world. The Indian IT/BPO industry manages business in a continuum from Australia to the US West Coast — that’s practically all 24 hours of a day. This is not a problem of the emerging economies alone. US executives complain that they work more and odder hours thanks to the extensive business between the US and China.

The second reason people are sleeping less is the lure of modern technology. Unlike the first reason, the second has nothing to do with oppressive enforcement. Out of his or her own volition, everybody is sleeping less. Entertainment content, work updates and social communication are instantly available. There is the irresistible temptation to watch just one more YouTube clip, respond to that 1 a?m Facebook comment from the other side of the world or worry about the customer’s objection to a contract that arrived midnight by email.

Finally when you sink into the paltry sleep you are likely to get, a message alert wakes you up. Or you sleep fitfully waking up every now and then to check whether a message you have been anxiously awaiting has arrived. The “blue light” seems always on. The magical 8 hour sleep desideratum has become an unattainable dream. But then only if you sleep, can you dream!

The new CSR

Business corporations and governments worldwide have a binding responsibility to at least significantly mitigate the new poverty, if not eliminate it. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should take on a new meaning. The work that business corporations worldwide are pursuing under the banner of CSR which focuses on the world outside their companies and their profits, is producing inarguably stellar results.

But somehow CSR seems to become less respectable if it focuses on the organisation’s own employees. This is a patently wrong notion. Without abandoning its external focus, CSR initiatives must now embrace the well-being of its own employees. It is not for nothing that the cliché goes, “Charity must begin at home.” Every organisation must have a concerted CSR effort that is internal and creates and implements comprehensive wellness programmes for its employees. A crucial part of such wellness programmes should be addressing the sleep deficit problem.

Using a combination of legislation, and economic and social taboos, companies have to come together to shape national and international agendas that outlaw overworking. Sceptics might ask whether international cooperation on this issue would be a reality. I would like to point them to the case of child labour. Governments worked in tandem with business corporations to attack this abhorrent practice. Over a period of time there has been a dramatic reduction in international goods and service that are products of child labour. Today child labour is taboo. I passionately argue for France’s much-reviled legislation of a 35-hour work week; 35 could be increased to 40, but the hours have to be limited to a reasonable number.

I passionately argue for France’s much-reviled legislation of a 35-hour work week; 35 could be increased to 40, but the hours should be limited to a reasonable number.

Sceptics might ask, doesn’t such regulation interfere with free enterprise and competition? No, it doesn’t. Every sport that is competitive has its own rules and only promises equal opportunity to all participants. If the whole world embraced a 35-hour week, there would be no adverse effect on competitiveness. Instead of criticising France, if more nations joined it in implementing uniform laws about the maximum number of working hours per week, it would level the playing field.

After all, the Scandinavian nations and Australia, which are very sensitive about the number of working hours, boast a high quality of life. It may be a practical necessity to have work shifts covering all the 24 hours of a day. However, workers could be rotated through shifts and overtime strictly limited. New legislation should make overworking a human rights abuse which it is.

Such legislature should not attempt to cure the limitation of working hours by providing for unlimited overtime compensation. That would lead to my earlier argument of increasing affluence worsening the new poverty. Other legislative interventions could consider, for instance, statutory warnings on cheap technology and communication deals offered during odd hours when people should be sleeping: Danger — Could lead to sleep deficit which is injurious to health.

To counter the overuse of technology leading to disturbed sleeping patterns, CSR efforts should develop education and incentive programmes. Educating people about the perils of sleeping less should become the cornerstone of every employee wellness programme. Wearable devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone produce reasonably tamper-proof records of a person’s sleep patterns and the number of steps walked in a day. Incentives could be offered to employees sleeping the requisite number of hours or walking the optimum number of steps in a given period.

Organisations, private or public, do not have to pursue employee wellness only in the name of human development and nobility. They can undertake the mandate in enlightened self-interest. Never before in the history of economic endeavour has access to money and traditional capital investments mattered less. Ideas, which arise from human capital, account for all manner of competitive advantage. Those ideas depend on the mental and physical wellness of the workers. The pursuit of employee wellness is therefore indistinguishable from the pursuit of profits and growth.

Business corporations have as much a duty as governments to deal effectively with the lack of food and sleep. There can be no real development so long as the twin scourges are in play.

(The writer is Founder, Anantara Solutions Private Limited. Email: gbprabhat@gmail.com)

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