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Wide awake

Whether at work, school or home, many adults such as UBC student Jo Smith sacrifice sleep for productivity in our round-the-clock world

They are the walking dead- with blood-shot eyes, frazzled nerves and listless bodies-dragging themselves through the day with a caffeine-infused cup of energy brew clutched in their trembling hands.

Jo Smith is one of them. The 23-year-old chemistry student at the University of British Columbia recollects many a stint of sleeplessness as she sips a Grande two-pump chai, one-pump vanilla steamed soy milk-not coffee, she explains, because that hurts her stomach. Smith says 32 hours without shuteye is the norm during school terms, not the anomaly. Assignments, exams and everyday life lock her in an epic battle against the 24-hour ticker, without a Hermione-Granger-inspired time-turning device to rewind the hours.

She's not alone. In a world where productivity rules, it's an increasingly prevalent sentiment that there simply aren't enough hours in a day. With 24-hour coffee shops, 24-hour grocery stores and the near-extinction of bankers' hours, people are not only expected to work all hours of the day, but all hours of the night. Some-like the new mother whose infant wakes her up for a feeding-have legitimate reasons to be running on an empty sleep tank. However, there's a fast growing group of pseudo sleep martyrs who wear their sleeplessness as a badge of honour. This distressing mindset fuels nearly a third of Canada's chronically sleep-deprived population to sacrifice one of life's most basic necessities-in the name of checking an extra task off the to-do list.

S o-called "sleep deprivation one-upmanship" is something Vancouver blogger Susan Wright-Boucher, 50, has routinely noticed at her own workplace and online. A career in the staffing industry means she's seen her share of professionals who possess a "sleep is for wimps" mindset or regularly post sleeplessness-related status updates on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

"'I'm so tired,' they'll say. 'I got four hours of sleep.' And then someone else would say, 'What are you talking about, I only got three.'"

The babyboomer admits to having bragged about her ability to function on minimal sleep in years past, until a TV program chronicling the vital nature of sleep compelled her to change. The self-described workaholic had to make a trade-off: going to bed at 8 p.m. and rising at 5 a.m. to keep in step with her job as vice president at Placement Group without compromising her health.

A cursory glance at Smith's Facebook profile page reveals this sleep deprivation angst, proving Wright-Boucher hasn't exaggerated her assessment.

"Dear Red Bull gods," Smith writes, "May your caffeine grant me the patience to accept that I will be up for 30 hours in total before bed tonight, the courage to make it through the lab this afternoon without despair, and the wisdom to know the difference between ligands on the midterm. Or else I'm kind of screwed today. Love, Jo."

According to a 2008 Statistics Canada study published in Canadian Social Trends, those who made a yearly average of $60,000 or more slept 40 minutes less per night than people who made $20,000.

Many employers do a poor job of encouraging a healthy work-life balance among their employees, Samra says. Oftentimes they view increased productivity as a plus-even if employees come into work bleary-eyed or sick. "It's valued," she says. "'You're the hard worker and you don't need sleep'... people somehow think it conveys, 'I'm so dedicated.'"

However, Samra says employers who prize output over employees' sleep might be taking the wrong approach. "When people are sleep deprived and chronically having sleep problems, their general productivity is lower, their attentiveness is worse, their concentration is worse, their reaction time is slower... There can be a big cost to employers."

So how much sleep does Samra get? The doctor lets out a full-fledged laugh. "You're asking the wrong person! I'm bad, I don't practice what I preach. I work a lot," she says, still chuckling sheepishly. "My average would be five to about six [hours]. But I'm trying to get more-I know I need to get more."

She goes on to explain how much sleep she thinks she needs, the numbers dwindling the longer she speaks. "Nine hours would be ridiculous for me. I've never needed that much. If I get seven, I'm golden. Seven's awesome. That feels like a lot of sleep for me... Six and a half is what works really well. A little less than that is not so good but I'm still pretty functional. But if I get below like five, five and a half, I can definitely feel the effects."

W hile Samra and Wright-Boucher target recent technological advances for the demise of a qualitynight's rest, Coren blames an earlier development-Thomas Edison's invention of the first long-lasting electric lightbulb in 1879. The American scientist and businessman believed people were inherently lazy, using the onset of darkness as an excuse to stop working. In Edison's mind, sleep was a waste of time, so he set about finding a solution. His lightbulb revolutionized the working world, making it possible for multiple shifts to work round the clock without being prisoners of the sun's rise and fall. Perhaps the root of the issue, however, is our efficiency-driven mentality-rather than a ball of glass and filament, Coren says, suggesting only a complete shift in societal values will address the growing problems associated with sleep deprivation. North Americans need to be convinced that going without sleep can be just as harmful to a person's overall health as smoking, he says. While puffing away on the cancer-causing sticks was once viewed as trendy, the public's attitude towards the habit has soured in recent years, mostly because of increased education and restrictions. The same should apply to sleep deprivation in the work environment, Coren asserts.

While most wouldn't dream of a surgeon doing open-heart surgery under the influence of alcohol, that same surgeon can operate while he hasn't slept-though he's equally impaired. Nevertheless, surgeons, corporate executives, students, truck drivers-and virtually everyone in between-continue go to work sleep deprived, prizing their efficiency and sleep sacrifice as a token of valour. Perhaps it will take the imposition of a "sin tax," Coren facetiously suggests-to target those who put lives at risk with their reckless behaviour. While he has high hopes for education to change public perspective, Coren says people often best learn through monetary penalties.

For now though, it's not something he'll lose sleep over.