Get rewarded for 7 hours' sleep

A new AIA scheme gives incentives to policyholders for getting enough quality sleep, just like the perks for walking more or choosing healthier food

People have been rewarded for walking more and for choosing healthier options like drinks with less sugar. Soon, people can get incentives just for getting sufficient sleep.

Insurance giant AIA has launched an initiative in Asia to combat sleep deprivation and wants to reward policyholders for getting at least seven hours of quality shut-eye a day, similar to how it incentivises them for taking at least 10,000 steps a day.

A sleep challenge will be integrated into AIA Vitality, its wellness programme that was launched in 2013, at the end of next month.

Members will be assessed on sleep quality, duration and health. There will be sleep-based rewards.

AIA Vitality members get $5 worth of rewards redeemable at outlets such as Starbucks or Cold Storage for every 250 points each week. For example, they get 50 points for walking 10,000 steps a day. Soon, they can get five points for getting seven hours of quality sleep a day.

More than 178 billion steps have been tracked on the AIA Vitality app in Singapore since the launch, said the group.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB) runs the National Steps Challenge, which offers similar rewards and free fitness trackers to get people to walk 10,000 steps a day.

Previously, the HPB had rewarded people for buying drinks with less or no sugar. They received Match and Win game cards, and could win $2,888 in cash and more.

AIA has come up with this sleep campaign as it moves from being just an insurer to helping customers lead healthier, longer and better lives.

As part of the initiative called #OneMoreHour, it has created a new sleep content hub to help people improve their sleep habits.

Professor Michael Chee, a sleep expert AIA worked with on the initiative, hopes the reward system will nudge some people into getting at least seven hours of good-quality sleep a night, though ultimately, the onus is on the individual to do this on his own.

"Incentivising steps works, so we're going to incentivise sleep," Prof Chee, who is with Duke-NUS Medical School and the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said at the initiative's launch.

"I am really enthused about this partnership with AIA because I've worked as a researcher for many years and while I love the results of what we have put forth, what I really want to do is to transform lives."

He added that the AIA sleep initiative offers a chance to translate sleep research findings into public health benefits. "Everyone knows we don't have enough sleep. People just need a nudge to do so."

Incentives are merely a stepping stone to the ultimate goal, which is for people to have enough sleep without needing reinforcement, but that will take time, he said.

"Initiatives to promote sleep have emerged from recognition that there is overwhelming evidence compelling governments to act on sleep, akin to the efforts to engage citizens and corporations to act on climate change," added Prof Chee.

He said some people, whom he calls "sleep haters", have made jokes about incentivising sleep.

Indeed, at the launch of the AIA sleep initiative last week, a reporter asked if it would work when the 5am club concept - there is even a 4am club - has gained in popularity as people take to the idea of waking earlier and may end up sleeping less to achieve more.

Assistant professor of management and organisation Sam Yam from NUS Business School said it is a myth that successful people have to sleep less to do well.

The benefits of getting sufficient sleep are irrefutable. He has done a study which found that a person who is sleep-deprived loses self-control and engages in more negative behaviour like cheating (faking tax returns, in the case of his study).

Many tech companies are encouraging sleep in different ways, he said. "Google and Airbnb - they have sleep pods in the workplace."

AIA's sleep challenge for its Vitality members, he said, is "a good idea but I am not sure it will work when the incentives end".

For those who have problems with sleep, Prof Yam said an online sleep programme based on cognitive behavioural therapy called sleepio can help people improve their sleep quality and quantity.

"The important thing is, it is free and shown to be effective," he said. "You learn to be a better sleeper."

Most people need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night, said Dr Leow Leong Chai, director of the Sleep Disorders Unit at the Singapore General Hospital.

"Sleep is a very important time for the brain to consolidate the memories and skills acquired during the day."

Also, many important "housekeeping" processes for the entire body happen during sleep - such as healing, growth, getting rid of waste products and replenishing stores of energy and chemicals for the next day's use, he said.

Yet, sleep deprivation is endemic here. Studies have shown that 44 per cent of Singaporeans sleep fewer than seven hours on weekdays and Singapore is one of the top three most sleep-deprived countries in the world, said Dr Leow.

An AIA survey done to prepare for its sleep initiative found that more than half of the people in Asia get only six hours of sleep or fewer every night - one to three hours below the optimal level for most adults.

The survey, conducted in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, found 69 per cent of the respondents did not feel good about how much sleep they had.

About 62 per cent agreed that getting one more hour of sleep would boost their mood and energy.

"Sleep is the ultimate performance drug," said AIA group chief marketing officer Stuart Spencer. "Just getting one more hour of sleep can provide an extensive number of health benefits."

Prof Chee asked: "Can you think of one drug or supplement that takes care of a whole slew of problems - early death, increased likelihood of diabetes, heart attack or stroke, mental illness, dementia and also, increased prevalence of absenteeism and sick days?

"Most public health bodies and governments focus on diet and exercise, but if you don't have sleep, it's going to affect the other two."

Correction note: The article has been updated for accuracy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2019, with the headline Get rewarded for 7 hours' sleep. Subscribe