mental alertness

Don’t be mean minded about tea & coffee breaks

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British DSCF1290workers lose 24 minutes a day getting tea and coffee. So what?

That’s about 5% of a working day. A small price to pay at a time when employee engagement is at an all-time low and stress is on the increase.

According to a story on the BBC  News website this is a habit that the company that carried out the survey, T6,  says employers need to crack down on as it costs £400 a year in lost man hours.

Fortunately the cavalry has come to the rescue. In fact not just the cavalry but the heavy brigade. The UK Tea Council, who might of course have a vested interest, talked about the sociability of tea-making and tea-drinking.

And doing a good turn by offering to make someone a drink is good for you as any positive psychologist will tell you.

Professor Cary Cooper is definitely all for it saying that breaks are essential in coping with a sedentary office job especially when you are glued to a screen and even e-mail your colleagues in the next department (and in one BBC department at the next desk according to a reliable source who once worked there).

Cooper even suggests organising free coffee breaks a couple of times a week so people can socialise together. Doesn’t have to be coffee of course and some experts warn about over-doing the caffeine.

A professor in biological psychology at Bristol University dismisses the idea that it increases alertness and in fact believes that drinking it regularly actually tires us. When we have a drink it just takes our energy levels back to what they would have been had we not had caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Tea also contains caffeine and a substance called theanine which actually relaxes us as well as many other compounds – unlike cola or energy drinks – which might be good for us. And preferable I would have thought to taking Ritalin or other cognitive-enhancing drugs.

A professor in occupational health psychology at Cardiff University  says caffeine is rightly prized by workers for combating fatigue, and for over-riding severe sleep deprivation. It won’t stimulate you if you’re not tired but it gets you back on form when you are – the “restoration of function” effect.

But what they both agree on is that holding a hot drink, enjoying the aroma, and coming together with other people to enjoy is a wonderful thing. Amen to that.

Updated 13 January 2011: More evidence to support more frequent breaks away from your desk has emerged from a study of almost 5,000 workers in the USA.

The researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, found that among those who spent a long time sitting down, the more breaks they took  – even if only for a minute – the smaller their waist-line and the healthier their heart. The number of breaks taken by workers over 7 days varied from 99 to 1,258.

Sedentary work has resulted in more obesity and conditions such as diabetes. Genevieve Healy who led the research published in the European Heart Journal says the slogan should be: “stand up, move more, more often”.

She recommends standing up to take telephone calls, walking to see a colleague rather than telephoning or e-mailing, having standing meetings, and centralised services so that workers have to walk to them, having lavatories on different floors, and using the stairs rather than the lift.

She didn’t specifically mention coffee breaks but walking to the kitchen to make yourself, and a colleague, a refreshing cup of tea or coffee has got to be the best option of all surely?

Last posted January 2011

Blue is the colour

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that keeps you awake and alert.

Teenagers are often drowsy – not just because they spend all night on Facebook or playing computer games – but because their body clocks lag behind in the morning and they don’t perform well until the evening (That applies to me too so maybe I’m still a teenager at heart!).

Some schools have responded by starting classes later to accommodate this. Others are experimenting with special blue-tinted lighting which keeps pupils alert.

The body clock is synchronised by light falling on part of the retina in the eye which responds most strongly to blue light. When stimulated the cells trigger alertness hormones so by exposing pupils to a dose of blue light the schools hope they will be more wide-awake in class.

The lighting system used has been developed by Philips at Eindhoven and is used in schools in Germany and the Netherlands. Apart from the intense blue light used to focus and energise the pupils the system also has more red tinted light to calm people down at the end of the day when pupils are usually more disruptive.

So the system is using light almost subliminally to trigger physiological responses. Early studies show reading speeds increased under the focused blue lighting and mathematical problem solving improved under the calmer settings.

Surely it’s only a matter of time that offices replace those headache inducing fluorescents, not just with LEDs, but with lights that might help improve productivity.

Other researchers have found that apart from the rods and cones there are cells in the eye which respond to blue light specifically. Blue light appears to enhance mood – both up and down – compared to other colours such as green.

Light therapy has also been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which affects people who live in parts of the world that has only short periods of daylight during the Winter months. Recent research suggests that blue light might be more effective than white light.

There is a downside however. Some doctors warn that exposure to high intensity blue light can lead to macular degeneration which causes blindness.

Updated 5 July 2011: Epsom and Ewell High School have been using the SchoolVision lighting system since last September and found it has had a positive effect on pupil’s behaviour.

The school can change both the intensity and the colour temperature and the children can ask for changes to be made when they are actually in a class.

Apart from the normal setting, used as pupils arrive at and depart from classes, there are three other settings: focus, calm, and energy.

Focus is bright blue to wake them up, red is calmer and used after break periods, and focus is a bright white light used during exams and tests.

The experiment is only being used in the science labs at present to encourage more people to study science at post-GCSE level. It seems to have worked. Physics students are up from 3 to 30, chemistry up from 1 to 17, and biology up from 28 to 44.

The lighting seems to improve student performances too as concentration and mood levels improve and further research is being carried out by the Centre for Performance at Work at City University in London.

Are you a lark or an owl? 

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It’s important to know when you are working at your best because it could make a difference to your career success.

Some people are bright and breezy first thing in a morning (hard to believe if you are an owl of course) whilst others don’t come to life until later in the day.

Research by biologists in Germany found that people whose performance peaks in the morning are more proactive than people who are at their best in the evening. (There may be an element of puritan work ethic in this of course)

They tend to get better grades in school, and have better job opportunities. They also anticipate problems  and minimise them. Their proactive trait is what leads to better job performance, greater career success and higher wages.

Evening people have some advantages: they tend to be smarter and more creative than morning types, have a better sense of humour, and are more outgoing. Unfortunately they are out of synch with typical corporate schedules according to Professor Christopher Randler at the University of Heidelberg.

If you find yourself waking up at the same time every day, even the weekends, then you are probably an early bird. On the other hand if you like to take advantage of  your weekend and have a lie-in  – the scientists found a 2 hour difference on average  – then you are probably an owl.

It seems more people under 30 are evening types; from 30 to 50 it’s evenly split; and after 50 most people are morning types. You can change  your “chronotype”, 50% of which is due to genetics, by changing your sleep pattern but it only works for half those who try and only a small shift of an hour or so.

Source: HBR July/August 2010

Updated 13 November 2010: Everyone has probably heard about Winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where lack of sunlight or daylight makes us feel depressed (and may contribute to the high suicide rates in some Nordic countries which enjoy  long Summer days followed by long Winter nights).

Experts now say that we should have exposure to bright daylight throughout the year. This is because daylight sets our body clocks and if we don’t get enough at the right time of day our body clock gets out of synch. That makes us feel tired and may influence our mood and concentration so that we rely on stimulants like coffee to keep us going.

This phenomenon has been called social jet lag, by Professor Till Roenneberg at the University of Munich, and it occurs because we evolved to live by natural patterns of daylight and night.

Bright lights in the morning stimulate the production of adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin, which help us keep awake and feel mentally alert. When light fades the pineal gland produces melatonin and adenosine which make us sleepy.

However with modern work patterns we may wake up in the dark, go to work in artificial daylight, then as it grows dark in the evenings switch on bright lights and probably spend time in a brightly lit bathroom before we got to bed. This has the same effect as having a cup of coffee.

So too much time in the wrong kind of light at the wrong time of day.

It’s estimated that  3 out of 4 people need an alarm clock to get up in the morning (I’m definitely an owl and I need two alarm clocks if I am going out to work) as their body clock is behind the real time and they are working at times which may not be biologically right for them.

The body clock also sets our metabolism and kidney functions and if yours isn’t in synch with real time you are more likely to use coffee or cigarettes to keep you awake and alcohol to help you sleep. You also run the risk of being overweight as you will eat at the wrong body clock times.

One study found that having lower levels of melatonin encourages cancer growth. Interestingly melatonin is used as a drug to help travellers overcome jet lag and I learned is also mainly produced between 2300 and 0300 when you are asleep. So owls like me going to bed in the early hours risk reducing their melatonin production. Knowing this helped me to make an extra effort to get to bed before midnight!

NB And none of this relates directly to how much sleep you might be getting – see “Are you getting enough Sleep?”

The problem is that artificial light is not bright enough and is only about 5% of the light intensity on a cloudy day. The best light is the brilliant blue sky and white sunlight which keeps us alert and prepares us for sleep. I remember the first time I went to Finland in the Summer and how wonderful it was seeing the sky so bright and the air seemed so much fresher.

The Health Protection Agency in the UK is studying  the effect of light on people in care homes and hospital to se if it can aid recovery, or even help them sleep better, and improve staff energy levels. Working without natural daylight is a definite no-no for many people and having sight of green grass and tress is a definite stress-reducer.

The challenge is not so much having bright light in the morning – at least 20 minutes a day is considered necessary to maintain out body clock’s accuracy – but having lower light levels in the evening whilst still being able to work. Scrapping British Summer Time would make the problem worse as it would give is more light at the end of the day all the year round.

Professor Roenneberg suggests that if you suffer from social jet lag you could try wearing sunglasses from 1600 onwards. A good excuse for looking cool in the office? Source: Daily Mail 9 November 2010

Great pull-out section in The Times (8 December 2010) “Understanding Sleep”. Everything from fatigue at work, body clocks, sleep problems to medication. Well worth a read!

Updated 16 December 2010: Scientists claim to have discovered a chemical that can wind back your body clock so that you don’t suffer jet lag (reported in PLoS Biology).

A drug called “longdaysin” can slow down the body clock for up to 12  hours which means it may be possible to calibrate the dose so you can take just the right amount to offset the number of hours that your body needs to adjust. Obviously this would be a boon to frequent flyers and shift workers if it works on humans.

So far the compound – which was found after screening more than 100,000 potential ones – has only been tried on zebra fish which had their biological clock reset by 10 hours. They reportedly suffered no ill-effects and their body clock returned to normal when the treatment wore off.

Make better use of your brain

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High achievement has little to do with your IQ but to a partnership between your brain and behaviour.

So say Drs Brown and Fenske, regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review, in their book “The Winner’s Brain”.

They also believe that the brain retains the capacity to change throughout adulthood (also see “Old doesn’t mean stupid“).

They say if you put in the work you can enhance brain function which in turn will help you become more self-aware, more resilient and with better control over attention and emotional responses (some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence).

Using neuro-imaging techniques researchers can now see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in specific tasks and also what impact certain activities have on those areas. They believe that those functions can be enhanced –  literally fine-tuning the brain.

They suggest a number of strategies to help us perform better.

  1. Meditation for stress relief can affect visible changes in areas of the brain which in turn have an impact on our ability to control attention and our emotional response
  2. The bigger the task the more likely you are to procrastinate. Therefore you nedd to reframe the problem and break it into small, concrete steps (bite size chunks as trainers might say). It is the ability to change the way you look at a task or problem that is important and the more you do it the more success you have.
  3. Brain functions that provide focus break down when you are multi-tasking or have distractions. To work optimally you can’t multi-task because the brain has limitations when doing multiple things (see “Multi-tasking makes you stupider than smoking pot“). So eliminate distractions but not all of them. To be at your best you may need to reduce activity in parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and self-criticism. So us a gentle distraction like background music or ambient sounds just enough to keep your critical self-conscious occupied so you can focus and work more easily. But avoid abrupt distractions like phone calls or e-mail alerts.

Source: HBR September 2010

Updated 5 November 2010: Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that passing electricity through the brain, from the right parietal lobe to the left, improves mathematical ability. If you pass the current in the opposite direction however it reduces your ability.

The research was looking for ways of treating dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia, which is thought to affect 6% of the population. Such a treatment might also be useful for people who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Of course there would be nothing to stop people with normal ability in maths using such a treatment to improve their ability eg when taking exams. This could replace the smart drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil used by some people as cognitive enhancers by improving attention and alertness. (See my earlier post; “Keeping up with speed“).

Old doesn’t mean stupid 

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It’s official. Twenty somethings aren’t at their peak mentally and the human brain can improve with advancing years.

The idea that it’s all down-hill from your mid-twenties is being re-appraised.

Short-term memory and reasoning may decline with old age but long-term memory, vocabulary, emotional intelligence and social skills, can all get better according to researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and reported in The Sunday Times; “Silver set rides wave of greater brain power” (27/6/2010).

Older people are more efficient at problem-solving than the young as they can draw on previous experience and older people also make more rational decisions. Researchers at the University of California studied people aged between 60 and 100  and found that they were less dependent on dopamine, the feel-good hormone sometimes associated with addictive behaviour, and therefore were less influenced by emotions or impulsivity.

This may explain why leaders and senior people in many professions and organisations are in their 50s and 60s. Two-thirds of FTSE 100 CEOs are aged over 50 and judges want to be able to work until they are 70.

A report from the Department of Work & Pensions: “Attitudes to Age in Britain 2004-2008” found that 48% of people found age discrimination a serious issue and more common, with 1 in 4 experiencing it, than any other form of discrimination. Stereotypically older people are seen as warmer and more moral but less competent whereas younger people are seen as exactly the opposite. The survey also showed that older people welcome flexibility and are keen to learn as well as to contribute their skills and experience. However they are less optimistic than younger people and more realistic.

The physical demands on older workers need to be considered as well as health issues like impaired vision, muscle strength, balance  and flexibility, Research from America, where 25% of 65-74 year olds are still working, shows that employers want the brainpower, experience and knowledge of older workers but not the risk of injuries or sickness absence.

Workers need to exercise their mental and physical faculties to keep healthy and motivated. There is growing evidence that mental and physical exercise can boost brain power. Three 40 minute walks a week can improve memory and reasoning while mental stimulation can improve problem-solving and reaction times.

See also “Practice makes perfect, probably

Updated 10 August 2010: The Ministry of Justice is proposing that people over the age of 70 should be allowed to sit on juries, although perhaps with an opt-out clause for those who didn’t feel up to it. Judges, who like magistrates and tribunal members have to retire at 70, have strongly opposed the idea.

Although it might save money, as most elderly jurors won’t need compensation for lost earnings, judges say older jurors could be more susceptible to illness and disability which could disrupt proceedings.

Couldn’t just be sour grapes could it?

Updated 13 October 2010: The Helsinki Times recently reported on a story in the Finnish financial newspaper Talous Sanomat which cast doubts on whether increased life expectancy automatically meant that people should work longer.

This debate has the Confederation of Finnish Industries arguing for a retirement age of 70 because of increasing life expectancy and the belief that people should work to that age. On the other hand the National Institute for Health and Welfare is urging caution because of the variations in health and the ability to work amongst older people.

Experts say only a small percentage of 70-year olds would be in good enough shape for paid employment as many 70-year olds suffer from memory lapses, muscle weakness, heart problems, and diabetes.

Have you got charisma?

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Charisma literally means Christ-like, and although difficult to define there are some key factors to consider if you want to develop or increase it.

Having self confidence is one of them. If you are confident and comfortable with yourself then you will project this outwardly.

If you are not self-confident then think of someone who is and copy their voice patterns, body posture and non-verbal signals (NVC) which you think contribute to their self-confidence.

This may mean for example, walking more slowly/ more briskly, lowering the pitch of your voice, or speaking more slowly/ more quickly.

Socially confident people have good emotional intelligence; not only are they self-aware and know how to control their own emotions, but they can sense others’ moods and know how to deal with them. Your spoken word and body language NVC must be telling the same story. If they don’t there will be leakage and people will sense that you are not being genuine. You should mean what you say but you don’t always have to say what you mean.

Physical presence is the quality that makes people give way for you or listen to what you have to say. This is mainly communicated through body language. Having an assertive posture – standing with feet slightly apart, looking still but alert (a zen-like martial arts readiness posture), maintaining eye contact but not overpowering others, smilingappropriately (and eliciting smiles in return), and being confident with your gestures.

Tall people are considered to have more leadership/command presence, so hold yourself tall (that piece of string through the centre of your head to the ceiling) and no slouching. Wear high heels and flattering clothes that make you look taller.

If you are really keen sign up for a Karate, Aikido, Yoga or Tai Chi class to help improve your self-confidence and develop your inner calm.

For those of you who feel less than charismatic the good news is that researchers have now found ways of measuring charisma and also how to teach it.

Sleep – are you getting enough? 

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Sleep. Are you getting enough? Probably not if surveys in the UK and America are anything to go by.

The UK’s Sleep Council survey of over 2,000 adults and found that half of them didn’t know how much sleep their children should be getting viz 12 hours for a 3 year old, 10 hours for a 6-12 year old, and 9 hours for a teenager.

Whilst 80% of parents recognised the importance of sleep in relation to school performance, many didn’t understand exactly why.

Chris Idzikowski, at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, says that sleep is essential for good physical, mental, and emotional health and is crucial for memory, learning and growth. “Bad sleeping habits in childhood can lead to long-term sleep problems and have been linked to obesity and heart disease”.

The Sleep Council believes that knowledge of the subject should be taught in schools alongside healthy eating and exercise and have published a guide for parents: “The Good Night Guide for Children”.

And it’s not just children who might be sleep deprived. The Harvard Business Review in October 2009 also reported on the problem in the USA. There the National Sleep Foundation reported in their “2008 Sleep in America Poll” that nearly a third of adults who work at least 30 hours a week have either fallen asleep or become extremely drowsy on the job.

Earlier that year a report for the National Academy of Sciences showed that a nap with REM or “dream sleep” improves your ability for creative problem solving and there are several studies that show that sleep boosts memory. For example if you memorise a list of of words then take a nap you will remember more words than if you hadn’t slept.

Robert Stickgold and his colleagues found evidence that important memory processing occurs as you are falling asleep as well as linking ideas and separating the wheat from the chaff. Evidence they say that  napping helps you to be more creative.

And when you are tired your visual discrimination skills fade. You need a 30 minute sleep to stop the burnout and 60 to 90 minutes including REM sleep to improve visual discrimination.

Some organisations have introduced napping periods; Google has sound and light-proof sleep pods. Such companies believe that it fits into their flexible working policies and boost productivity for little cost. Perhaps more seriously in New Zealand air traffic controllers on night shifts were more alert and performed better if they had a 40 minute sleep break.

Even micro-naps of just 6 minutes – not including the time it takes to fall asleep, which is 5 minutes if you are really tired – can make a difference.

Perhaps the siesta loving countries have had the right idea all along. There was a public outcry when the Portuguese government tried to ban them a few years ago to improve productivity.

Updated 2 July 2010: A new book by Tony Shwartz and colleagues: “The way we’re working isn’t working” the 4 forgotten needs that energise great performance” includes a section on taking care of your health including sleep. Some interesting facts include:

  • Melatonin is produced mainly between 1100 and 0300 so working during those times reduces our cognitive ability
  • Research at Stanford University shows that extending sleep improves performance
  • Chronically sleep deprived people are significantly more likely to suffer from heart disease than people who sleep only 6 hours and who in turn are significantly more at risk than people who sleep the necessary 7 hours (General McCrystal allegedly only sleeps 4 hours)
  • Sleeping only 6 hours a night for two weeks  has the same effect as someone who has been sleep-deprived for 48 hours

Updated 10 August 2010: Several newspapers in the last week reported that the holy grail of sleep had been discovered. Not so said the Times “Quack Quack – we debunk the myth behind the headlines“. The research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that the performance of volunteers who were restricted to 4 hours sleep a night for 5 nights slumped but made up some but not all of the difference when they were allowed to sleep for ten hours on the 6th day. Basically lie-ins don’t make up for sleep loss.

Scare stories last year said lie-ins ie more than 8 hours sleep, doubled your chance of dementia. And on the one hand research at the University of California showed that people who sleep longest are 15% more likely to die early whilst on the other research at Portland State University showed that people who sleep 10 hours a night have a better chance of reaching a hundred.

There seems to be no optimum length of sleep – it seems a very individual thing. If you stay alert during the day you are probably getting enough.

Updated 20 September 2010:  But now experts are saying that if babies and pre-school children don’t get 10 hours of sleep a night they are likely to be overweight when they get older.

A lack of sleep may cause an imbalance in appetite controlling hormones making those short of sleep to feel hungrier and crave snacks during the day. Previous research has linked sleep deprivation with obesity in adults and teenagers but this research from the USA, published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, covered 1,00 under-5s. Those with less than 10 hours sleep were twice as likely to be overweight 5 years later.

The researchers concluded; ” Insufficient night-time sleep among infants and pre-school age children appears to be a lasting risk factor for subsequent obesity” and ” these findings suggest a critical window prior to age 5 years when night-time sleep may be important for subsequent obesity status”.

Newspapers picked up this story and reporter Sophie Borland  included some data from other countries to strengthen the case. For example, researchers in China looked at 5,000 children and found that those who were able to catch up on their sleep at the weekend were less likely to put on weight. And in Canada researchers found that people who didn’t get the optimum 7 – 8 hours sleep were two and a half times more at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Updated 4 March 2011: 10% of us are relying on medication to help us sleep. That’s according to a survey of 40,000 families funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.

Apparently 1 in 8 of us now gets less than 6 hours sleep a night and 60% of us take 30 minutes to drop off with 10% of us using medication three times a week to help us do that.

Experts say sleep is as important to our health as diet or exercise and long-term deprivation will have long-term health risks such as diabetes, obesity, and heart problems. This is because hormones controlling your appetite and blood pressure are affected by sleep patterns.

Rather than using medication to give you drug-induced sleep it is better to look at the environmental and life-style factors in busy modern lives to solve the problem.    

Updated 2 May 2011: Finally some firm evidence on how much sleep you really need. Experiments at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania divided people into 3 groups. Some slept for 4 hours, some for 6 hours, and some for 8 hours a night over a two-week period.

Every 2 hours during the day the researchers tested their subjects to see how alert they were using the psychomotor vigilance task which requires you to sit in front of a computer screen for 10 minute sessions where you had to press the space bar when randomly timed numbers came up.

The PVT test measures the kind of vigilance needed by pilots, truck drivers and astronauts. and also for staying focussed when reading or attending meetings.

Those who had 8 hours of sleep had hardly any attention lapses over the 14 days of the study. Those who had only 4 or 6 hours got steadily worse as each day passed. By day 6, 25% of the 6 hour sleepers were falling asleep at their computer. By the end of the study the 6 hour sleepers were as impaired as those who had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours.

In real life you have more distractions than in a sleep laboratory: regular coffee, bright lights, interaction with colleagues etc but you will still feel the effects of sleep deprivation after five to seven days.

Some of the people who needed 8 hours felt the impact of a 4 hour sleep immediately while others coped for a few days before deterioration inevitably set in. Some people insist they can manage on 5 hours sleep but the 4 and 6 hour sleepers felt that although they felt sleepy they were unaffected. This wasn’t true but people aren’t good at judging their own sleep needs.

Researchers think that there might be a small percentage of people who, because of their genes, can maintain their performance with  less than 5 hours sleep just as there are people who require 9 hours or more.

Source: New York Times April 15 2011  

Meanwhile scientists at Northumbria University have been studying “short sleepers”. People like Margaret Thatcher, Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who were too busy to sleep.

These sleepless elite tend to be more ambitious, outgoing, optimistic and energetic than those who would rather have a lie-in. The scientists think that there are perhaps only 3% of the population who can thrive on less than 6 hours sleep and research is being carried out world-wide to try to identify the gene responsible for this.

The short sleepers are both owls and larks as they often go to bed after midnight but get up before dawn.

The UK researchers believe that Britons are already sacrificing 4 hours sleep a week because of stress and work commitments and risk chronic insomnia and in America about 15% of adults report sleeping less than 6 hours a night.