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The National Sleep Foundation places at $100 billion a year the productivity loss caused by our lack of sleep.


At the start of this century, Northern manufacturers who opened factories in the rural South discovered that to get production shifts started, they first had to teach new workers to arrive on time. The former sharecroppers didn't own watches and had timed their lives only by the rising and setting of the sun.

To solve the problem, the boss would install a large clock in the town center and put a loud whistle on the factory roof to remind employees when to wake up.Today, employees have their own alarm clocks to rouse themselves in the dark. Thousands of suburban commuters crowd onto metro Atlanta's freeways before the eastern sky turns pink.

Because of our ever-increasing commute times, the trend toward waking before dawn is growing. Local TV news programs now start at 5 a.m., and publishers everywhere are trying to get newspapers delivered before 6 a.m. to reach workers before they leave the house.

Executives have even started to hold breakfast meetings to squeeze more activity into the day. Last week, Mayor Bill Campbell held his annual State of the City Business Breakfast at 7:30 a.m. in the Westin Peachtree Plaza. Sunrise was at 7:31 a.m.

This push to start the day sooner wouldn't be a problem if Americans were going to bed earlier. But few adults tuck in by 9 p.m. In fact, the lure of late-night entertainment, such as ``Politically Incorrect,' is keeping people up later.

For many parents, the hours from 9:30 p.m. to midnight are too precious to turn over to dreams. Because of long workdays and brutal commutes, many families don't finish dinner and clear the table until nearly 8 p.m. Then it's time for helping with homework, doing laundry and paying bills. It's not until the kids are in bed that adults feel free to relax.

So bedtime gets pushed back until after the 11 p.m. news. And that means the alarm clock will ring long before the sleepy worker is well rested.

Unfortunately, life is even more difficult for those who don't have day jobs. About 25 million Americans work nontraditional hours, often in the dead of night. For example, United Parcel Service has legions of part-timers who sort packages during the wee hours while Holiday Inn workers prepare fruit cups for breakfast meetings.

Sleep researchers say our work schedules, commute times and television viewing habits are turning us into sleep-starved zombies. Studies show Americans average seven hours of sleep a night, with about a third getting six hours or less. Most brains need eight hours of continuous rest to function well.

Some people view their short sleep hours as a sign of robustness. They believe they are accomplishing more work and having more fun than the nerds who go to bed at 9:30 p.m. But the National Sleep Foundation says the opposite is true: Sleep deprivation costs Americans more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity, traffic accidents, medical expenses and on-the-job injuries.

Think how much productivity is lost for commuters every time an exhausted tractor-trailer driver nods off and jackknifes his rig in the middle of I-75. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 of the motor vehicle accidents reported to police each year are the result of a driver dozing off or being drowsy.

Considering the high cost of sleepiness, employers might want to consider reversing the process they began a century ago. Instead of blowing a whistle to wake people up, they should sound an alarm at 9:30 p.m. to remind workers to turn off the television and get to bed.


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