The average person in the UK is under-sleeping by about an hour a night, losing the equivalent of an entire night’s sleep a week, a survey for the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has found.
The poll of 2,000 adults, published in a report by the society, found the average sleep time is 6.8 hours, compared with the 7.7 hours people feel they need.
Many people said the deficit had knock-on effects on their health, with roughly half saying they had felt stressed as a result and about a third saying it caused them to eat unhealthy food.
The RSPH is so concerned that it is calling for a national sleep strategy, including a “slumber number” – guidance on how many hours of sleep people should be getting according to their age – and for the subject to be added to the school curriculum.
“Good sleep can cure many of the public’s ills, and lack of it is linked to a string of unhealthy behaviours and some of our leading preventable diseases,” said RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer.
“Despite this, sleep is an often overlooked and undervalued component in the public’s health. It is clear that the public regard sleep as just as important as maintaining a balanced diet or an active lifestyle for maintaining good health and wellbeing, and we need to do more to promote its importance.
“In order to give sleep the attention it deserves we believe that the government should develop a national sleep strategy which would encompass action that schools, employers, healthcare professionals and the public can take to help us sleep better at night.”
Poor sleep is known to increase the risk of developing serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and to shorten life expectancy.
The report suggests the slumber number for 18-to-64-year-olds should be seven to nine hours a day. The recommended amount of sleep increases the younger you are – peaking at 11 to 14 hours for one-to two-year-olds, but falling to seven to eight hours for people aged 65 and above.
The poll suggests that people understand the importance of sleep – it was ranked as the second most important activity for optimising health and wellbeing, behind avoiding smoking – but nevertheless fail to get enough.
Parents, commuters, shift workers, party animals and young people are among the most sleep-deprived.
The RSPH says health workers should routinely screen for sleep problems and there should be greater availability of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for disorders, from which one in three people suffer. It says CBT is more effective than sleeping pills, for which 10m prescriptions a year are written in England.
Colin Espie, report co-author and professor of sleep medicine at Oxford University, said: “The importance of sleep for individual and societal benefit has been almost completely neglected in both policy and practice.
“Insomnia, the most common expression of mental disease, is like a Cinderella disorder – seldom receiving proper attention, despite the fact that it is the most treatable precursor to depression.
“There is a great opportunity to put contemporary sleep research findings to work for the public good, and I’m sure many would agree on the importance of adding sleep to the nation’s health agenda.”
Public Health England referred the Guardian to its One You campaign, which states: “Most of us need around eight hours of good-quality sleep a night to function properly – but some need more and some less. What matters is that you find out how much sleep you need and then try to achieve it.
“Good-quality sleep is more important than the amount of sleep that you get and it helps to keep you feeling healthy.”