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Work and sleep: happy bedfellows?

It could be the hours spent poring over arcane legal documents or perhaps the exhaustion of stress-filled days. But, according to a new report, solicitors manage to get more sleep than workers in most other professions.


Research into the sleeping patterns of eight occupations by the Sleep Council found that, on average, solicitors managed 7.8 hours of sleep a night. One in five of the solicitors surveyed said they enjoyed an average of ten hours’ sleep.


On-call hospital doctors came bottom of the sleep league, managing only 4.5 hours a night, while politicians also fared badly, averaging only 5.2 hours of sleep. Architects and, surprisingly, mothers with young children were other groups who it is claimed managed to get a satisfactory amount of sleep, each clocking up more than seven hours.


The overall picture was worrying, however, as none of the professions surveyed managed on average to reach the recommended eight-hour sleeping time for adults.


The Sleep Council, which compiled the research, promotes the benefits of a good night’s sleep and is funded by bed firms. Spokeswoman Jessica Alexander said those people who got adequate sleep avoided a host of problems that poor sleepers suffered. She said: "Time and again research has shown us that lack of sleep affects our ability to think clearly and rationally.


"Losing sleep erodes concentration and problem-solving ability. According to research, each hour of sleep lost per night is associated with a temporary loss of one IQ point. If we were a political party, ensuring the nation got a good night’s sleep would be at the heart of our manifesto. It’s as important to the health and wealth of the nation as a balanced diet and regular exercise."


According to the report, people need about eight hours of sleep a night, and a "sleep debt" of only seven hours a week can result in symptoms such as burning eyes, blurred vision and waves of sleepiness.


In the case of people who suffer from a long-term lack of sleep, more extreme side effects are possible. Research suggests that it could be responsible for health problems ranging from diabetes to cancer.


Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Lancaster, was surprised that solicitors managed so much sleep, although he said it was a sign that they could "switch off" from their work when they got away from the office.


He said: "Solicitors need to be very vigilant and aware of what they’re doing as they are often dealing with very technical papers. Any slight mistake could be significant for them.


"If they are managing to get a good night of sleep despite working long hours then it shows they must be able to cut themselves off from their job when they finish work, even if they don’t finish until as late as seven or eight at night."


However, Hilary Tilby, the chief executive of LawCare, a charity that offers help and support to lawyers, said the volume of calls received by its helpline suggested the report may not have surveyed a representative sample. She said: "I am extremely surprised by the findings and they certainly do not tie in with the stories that we hear."


"How people cope with the stress of the job depends entirely on the individual. Some will be able to compartmentalise their life very well with the support of friends of families, but others are certainly not as good at doing that.


"Sleep is a very subjective issue and it can effect people to different extents. Some people can get by easily with only five hours while others are like a bear with a sore head after eight hours."


A 2004 report by think-tank Demos said Britons were getting an average of 90 minutes less sleep than they used to each night. It pointed to irritable behaviour, inefficiency at work, ill-health, road accidents and even divorce as potential side-effects of a lack of, or poor quality sleep. Research shows that one night’s lack of sleep results in a 30 per cent loss in cognitive performance the next day and a 60 per cent loss after two nights.


More people are also realising that they have a sleep problem, with an estimated 13 million sleeping pills prescribed in Britain last year.


According to the Sleep Council study, some politicians reported having less than five hours sleep a night.


In a profession where leading figures such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher have promoted the idea of the "power nap", Prof Cooper said MPs may have less of an ability to switch off from their work.


"Sleep is an important constituent of doing well at work. We have night owls and we have morning larks but whichever you are, the important thing is that you need to get the right amount of sleep."


Dr David Lewis, a psychologist who specialises in the link between stress and lack of sleep, analysed the study’s results. He said that, while the average amount of sleep that politicians got was only 5.2 hours, one in four spent at least ten hours a night in bed.


He said this suggested that their difficulty lay in actually getting to sleep, not in finding the time to go to bed.


He added: "One likely reason is that, while mentally exhausted, they are not sufficiently tired to fall asleep. As a result, their heads are filled with circulating thoughts and worries, which conspire to keep them awake."


The report found that one in five people woke up between four and six times every night while more than a quarter had difficulties falling asleep and a further quarter reported waking early as a problem.


Dr Lewis said: "While short-term sleep loss is nothing to worry about, chronic sleep debt can have a seriously damaging effect on our mental and physical health. Not only that, but it can result in serious miscalculations and catastrophically bad decisions being made."


THE Z LIST


* Solicitors: 7.8 hours

* Architects: 7.5

* Mothers of young children: 7.1

* Social workers: 6.9

* Dustmen: 6.5

* Teachers: 6.0

* Politicians: 5.2

* Hospital doctors (on call): 4.5


Source - Work and sleep: happy bedfellows?
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