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Sleeplessness – a peculiarly British problem?

Posted on 22 June 2017 by NatCen, Research .
Tags: ESS, European Social Survey, Sleep

We all know that a sleepless night can make you feel grumpy and lethargic. But regular poor sleep has been linked to a number of serious health problems, from obesity to dementia, diabetes to depression, and it can even affect fertility.

Feeling tired seems to be a chronic problem in modern Britain, with around a third of men and a fifth of women working shift patterns which disrupt our sleep patterns, or simply feeling unable to switch off.

But is this a fact of life in an industrialised country, or is it a uniquely British phenomenon? The European Social Survey (ESS) allows us to look at the extent to which restless sleep is a problem in Britain and how this compares to our European neighbours.

ESS asks people how often their sleep was restless in the week before the interview. The most recent data, from 2014, shows that around two in five people (41%) in Britain never or almost never experienced restless sleep. As many as one fifth (21%) of us said that in the past week our sleep was restless all or most of the time, including 8% of people who said their sleep was restless all the time.

So how do we compare? The chart below shows that people in Britain are among the worst offenders when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. France has a similar proportion of people regularly having a bad nights’ sleep (21%). And it seems the most well-rested are Finland and Ireland, where the proportion saying their sleep was restless all or most of the time was about half that of the UK (11%). Norway, Austria and Lithuania also have pretty low levels of restless sleep, according to the survey.  

Something else we can find out from the ESS is whether we’re having more restless sleep than we have done in the past. We’ve been through a global financial crisis which can increase stress, and there has been evidence that smartphones and tablets are disrupting sleep patterns. So we might expect that we’re having worse sleep now than we did in the mid-00s.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case, in the UK at least. The proportion of people saying that in the past week their sleep was restless all or most of the time has been pretty stable between 2006 and 2014, as has the proportion who say they haven’t had any restless sleep at all.

Restless Sleep ESS

So we can rest easy in the knowledge that our beloved smartphone may not, as it turns out, be keeping us up at night. 


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