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We all know how it feels to get a bad night's sleep: sore eyes, irritable, unmotivated. And the lingering health effects of poor sleep have long been recognised: increased chance of heart disease, depression, cancer and ultimately a shorter healthy life expectancy. More recently, research has highlighted the negative impacts that sleep deprivation can have on other areas of our physical and mental health, including obesity and loneliness, both leading risk factors for premature death themselves. In the light of this, might we start to see sleep join free speech and education as a fundamental human right?

We don’t get enough sleep as a country, with neuroscientists such as Matthew Walker claiming we're in the midst of a sleep-loss epidemic. Disparities in the amount of shut-eye we get based on gender, ethnicity and occupation are also becoming increasingly apparent, underscoring the need to develop a better understanding of sleep inequalities. Some, such as Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry, take this idea further, arguing that rest is an active form of resistance to social and racial injustices.

The statistics alone are enough to keep one up at night. One study from the Journal of the American Heart Foundation found that adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke, while other studies have found that a lack of sleep can cause imbalances in the hormones that regulate our appetite, leading to an increase in hunger for calorie-rich foods.

The statistics alone are enough to keep one up at night. One study found that adults aged 45 or older who sleep less than six hours a night are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke

Lack of sleep is unevenly distributed, with women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds particularly impacted; these gaps have been widened by the pandemic. In April 2020, just after the UK lockdown began, a University of Southampton study found that sleeplessness due to worry in April 2020 (just after the UK lockdown began) increased from about one fifth to one third of women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Sleep problems among frontline workers in health, social care, education and childcare, of which both women and people of minority ethnic backgrounds are overrepresented, rose from 16 percent to 29 percent after lockdown started. What’s more, sleep disruption is well-reported amongst shift workers among whom minority ethnic backgrounds are again overrepresented.

The good news is that employers are waking up to the importance of having a well-rested workforce, particularly its potential to increase productivity and creativity and decrease workplace accidents. A 2020 survey by Business Group on Health found the number of large- to medium-sized employers offering sleep programmes had increased by eight percent in just one year. These programmes range from access to proven cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia to less well-evidenced programs such as providing staff with wearables, nap pods or meditation apps.

But there could be a darker side to these developments; some raise concerns over intrusions into privacy with digital technologies that can be used for surveillance. Wellness schemes are also rarely available for workers in insecure or low-paid employment, so the benefits are likely to be limited to more privileged groups.

The link between sleep inequalities, health inequalities and work raises questions about the right to sleep and whether it ought to be protected. Recently, union leaders attacked moves to extend relaxation of the hours worked by lorry drivers. And as early as 2012, the supreme court of India declared sleep a fundamental right, with justices citing health as part of the rationale.

This is also a grassroots movement: across the world, activists are increasingly demanding the right to rest, from the Nap Ministry in Atlanta to the Lying Flat movement in China. But securing such protections could be an uphill struggle particularly for low-paid workers or those who are not unionised. Earlier this year the UK supreme court ruled that care workers are only entitled to the minimum wage when awake.

The growing focus on the quality of our sleep (as illustrated by the proliferation of tracking devices, sleep apps and books on the topic) may be a step in the right direction. Yet the evidence on sleep inequalities suggest that rather than helping people track how much sleep they are (or aren’t) getting or offering ‘self-help’ strategies (which are often impossible to implement), more emphasis needs to be put into addressing the structural causes of sleep loss. That includes long hours, anti-social working patterns and stress resulting from toxic workplace cultures.

All the signals point towards the fact that poor sleep is impacting our health and compounding existing social inequalities. The next rallying cry for workers and activists may well be for the right to rest.