TUESDAY, Dec. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Chronic sleep loss is rampant in America, and work commitment is a big reason why, new research suggests.
"Work is the No. 1 sleep killer," said Dr. Mathias Basner, an assistant professor of sleep and chronobiology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
A time-use survey of nearly 125,000 Americans, ages 15 years and older, found that work is the main activity exchanged for sleep. Short sleepers -- those who slept six hours or less -- worked 1.55 more hours on weekdays and nearly two more hours on weekends and holidays than those who slept longer, the researchers found.
Short sleepers were also more likely to have longer commutes or more than one job. Adults with multiple jobs were 61 percent more likely to sleep six hours or less on weekdays, the researchers said.
This finding "is telling us something about a trend that is a bit worrisome," said Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Sleep Disorders Center.
Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to ill health, including blood sugar problems and weight gain, said Avidan, who wasn't involved in the study.
Changes in public policy are needed to remedy the problem, said Basner. He suggested employers and schools consider later starts or flexible hours.
Reducing commute times is another imperative, Basner said. With every hour that work or schools started later in the morning, sleep time rose by about 20 minutes, suggesting later starts or flexible start times might be a solution.
Adults need about seven to nine hours of nightly sleep for best health, productivity and daytime alertness, says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But the study authors cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that 30 percent of employed American adults typically sleep six hours or less in a 24-hour period.
The study found that unemployed and retired people got more sleep than job holders. Self-employed workers logged more shut-eye, too, and were 17 percent less likely to be short sleepers. Basner thinks that's due to their ability to be more flexible in their working hours.
The study is published in the December issue of Sleep.
The telephone survey -- sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau -- asked respondents how they spent their time between 4 a.m. the previous day and 4 a.m. on the interview day. The researchers looked at responses from 2003 to 2011.
They combined responses into 40 activities that capture nearly all of the 24-hour day. In the sleeping category were napping, waking up and dreaming.
Work wasn't the only sleep thief. Grooming and watching nighttime television were also culprits, Basner said.
"What we are doing instead of sleep are other activities," he said. "That cuts down our ability to get seven hours of sleep."
Avidan saw two teens recently who had sleep issues. They were evaluated for a sleep disorder known as narcolepsy, in which people fall asleep while engaged in everyday activities. He found that simple sleep deprivation was the problem.
Workers and students can take measures to increase sleep, Avidan and Basner agreed. Cutting down on nighttime TV viewing is one way.
"Some people have elaborate hairstyles," Basner said. Simplifying them can cut down on bathroom time in the morning and boost sleep, he said.
Living closer to work can shorten commute time, Basner said. Aim for a 15- or 20-minute commute, said Avidan, although he acknowledged that might not be realistic in some areas.
Asking for flexible hours might help, Avidan said. You could argue that you will be more productive if you are well-rested, and research would back you up, he said.
"We find people who are sleep deprived are more likely not only to make errors objectively but subjectively," he said. "They are also going to be more irritable."
For more about healthy sleep, visit the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.