There is an ongoing debate in India about the merits, or otherwise, of a 70-hour working week.
It was sparked by tech billionaire Narayana Murthy, who made a comment on a podcast that young Indians needed to work those hours to benefit the nation's economy.
Research suggests, however, that the opposite would be the reality.
A 70-hour week would translate to five 14-hour days for workers. The effect on sleep habits and, consequently, people's health would be profound.
Sleep is essential for survival, an evolutionarily ancient behavioral state exhibited by mammals, birds and reptiles. Even amphibians, fish and invertebrates go into states of reduced activity resembling rest if not sleep with its characteristic electroencephalographic sleep patterns.
Experiments with rats demonstrate that sleep deprivation has dire consequences on physiological well-being.
Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of several chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity by causing changes to nervous system activity, affecting the hormones underlying appetite regulation and increasing cortisol levels. Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and many other ailments. Anxiety and depression are also reportedly associated strongly with reduced sleep.
There is no question that sleep impacts quality of life. Yet sleep appears antithetical to other important functions of life such as nurturing children, skill development of the young and more recently, school and college education and technology-associated productivity.
In a 24-hour cycle, eight hours of sleep is generally allocated in the night followed by the eight-hours-for-work principle based on the hard-won eight-hour workday. If this routine is maintained, eight hours remains for all other activities.
The five-day work week pattern means an input of 40 hours per week devoted to work where attention is restricted to a few domains of activity. Literature and cinema is replete with examples of ways of extending or compressing the time allocated in each of these three arms.
This famous scene from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is a case in point.
The 70-hour work week comment has reignited a discussion on economic productivity but little has been said about its costs.
This essentially means 14 hours devoted to work per day based on the five workdays per week pattern. If sleep is to be allocated eight hours then only two hours remain for all other activities including bathing, exercise, cleaning, cooking, eating, commuting to work, and socializing, which are among the most essentials of life functions.
Clearly, the 70-hours work per week imposition would also affect sleep duration. The loss of work performance due to insomnia has been estimated to be in the range of USD$2,280-3,274 at the individual level. Extending the five-day work week to six or even seven would attract huge costs of impairing health and family care.
Yet, industrialists appear to think that increasing work hours is the key to higher productivity. The evidence points to the contrary. It suggests optimal work hours as safe towards health, notably heart functioning.
The average number of hours worked per person in a year varies between countries, ranging from about 1319.131 in Germany to 2405.385 in Colombia for a five-year period between 2018 and 2022.
The GDP per hour worked — a measure of productivity — ranges from 87.80427 in South Africa to 139.63803 in Ireland in the same period. The GDP per hour worked in Germany in this period ranges from 103.3757 to 106.4607. Comparatively in Colombia, the range was 104.5059 to 114.8887.
Even though the average number of hours worked per person in a year in Colombia shoots up to 1.8 times that of Germany, the maximum productivity for that period is 1.08 times that of Germany — nearly the same. Raising the number of hours worked does not necessarily translate to a good quantum increase in productivity.
Germany is trying a four-day work week for six months with as many as 45 companies participating in this pilot study. The goal of this trial is increasing efficiency to boost the economy through enhanced well-being and motivation.
Long work hours are significantly detrimental to health, as reported in several studies in different countries with varying geographies and population characteristics. In India, the average annual hours worked by persons engaged has been more than 2000 in the last decade.
The latest GDP per capita for India is USD$2410.90. While evident that the GDP per capita is among the low category of countries, the momentum to boost productivity would perhaps need a different strategy than simply increasing work hours.
A recent survey shows that interest in sleep improvement and awareness of sleep benefits was generally low among diverse women and a discrepancy was noted between the need and interest in sleep duration. Neither did adolescents realize sleep hygiene as important over other factors.
Several approaches to a good night's sleep have been suggested. Many over-the-counter and prescription medications are also available, although not without side effects. Non-pharmacological approaches are also reported, such as foot reflexology and warm foot baths, limited tea drinking , mindfulness meditation and yogic sleep.
Advancements in sleep research continue innovatively including music therapy, behavioral sleep medicine for obstructive sleep apnea, continuous care intervention for type2 diabetes and prediabetes individuals and several other methods for hospitalized patients.
Individual variations need consideration for meeting the factors of sleep hygiene, including sleep regularity, regular exercise, alcohol consumption, caffeine intake, napping, relaxation, food intake and light exposure. Light exposure is also linked to circadian rhythms, the biological clock we are born with. To maintain sleep hygiene, daily activities need to be carefully planned.
On the other hand, employer sponsored efforts toward better health and well being of employees including good quality sleep could enable productivity, perhaps a take-home lesson for employers and industrialists.
(The author is an Emeritus Professor at Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies, Faridabad, Haryana. This article was originally published under Creative Commons by 360info)