Sacrificing sleep for work not a 'badge of honour'

Trait instilled in Asian students from a young age could lead to health issues later: Experts

In this part of the world, working hard is often seen as a "badge of honour", even when it comes at the expense of slumber.

But experts at the three-day Asean Sleep Congress, which ended yesterday, stressed the important role that a good night's rest plays in improving your focus, memory and overall mood.

"In Asia, it's a badge of honour to work hard," said sleep expert Michael Chee, director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. "But if you value achievement above everything else, you're not going to assign sleep the importance that it should have."

The opening lecture was given by Professor Wing Yun Kwok of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's psychiatry department, who observed that children there are increasingly sleeping fewer hours.

He painted a picture of Hong Kong that will be familiar to Singaporeans - students who wake up early for school, spend the night doing homework and squeeze in an hour or two of leisure before going to bed late. "Children tend to sleep fewer hours on weekdays and try to compensate on weekends," he said. "It helps a little bit, but it doesn't compensate fully."

Such children, he added, often suffer from problems such as higher blood pressure or cholesterol levels than their peers.

Prof Chee said that in an as-yet unpublished study of teenage students that he carried out, those who slept for five hours a night during weekdays suffered more lapses in memory and alertness than those who slept nine hours.

Even after two nights of nine-hour rest during the weekends, they were not able to fully recover.

"Children don't know better because their parents set the example from birth. Habits are the hardest things to overcome," he said.

Although he did not encourage people to slack off, Prof Chee believes that sacrificing shut-eye can result in more harm than good.

Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min, who spoke at the opening ceremony, said both employers and parents have a role to play in improving the situation.

He said: "We could be more proactive about tackling the problem of sleep deprivation by raising awareness on the health risks associated with insufficient sleep."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'Sacrificing sleep for work not a 'badge of honour''. Print Edition | Subscribe