Late nights and early starts are depriving the nation of valuable rest, work and play as national averages for sleep have dropped to 7.5 hours per night. Which is why a major new report is urging bosses to let workers sleep on the job

Britain is burning the candle at both ends. Longer working hours and the temptations of the 24/7 society are leaving a yawning gap in our lives: sleep. We now get an average of 90 minutes less than we used to.

Britain is burning the candle at both ends. Longer working hours and the temptations of the 24/7 society are leaving a yawning gap in our lives: sleep. We now get an average of 90 minutes less than we used to.

Lack of sleep is leading to a host of problems, ranging from irritable behaviour and inefficiency at work, to ill health, road accidents and even divorce, according to an authoritative new report, provisionally entitled Dream On, to be published next month. The Government and businesses should take sleep deficiency far more seriously, say researchers for the influential think-tank Demos, who recommend daily powernaps.

"Britain is running on a sleep deficit, and it is taking a growing toll, both economically and socially," said the report's author, Charlie Leadbeater, political analyst and New Labour adviser, who is a former journalist at the Financial Times and Independent. "Sleep is increasingly considered as something of a leftover. People are taking it for granted, but we're reaching the point in our non-stop, 24/7 society where they just can't do that any more."

The average night's sleep in Britain has fallen noticeably over recent generations, in both quality and quantity. A century ago, Britons slept an average of nine hours a night, but that figure is now seven-and-a-half hours. Adults between the ages of 25 and 55, particularly those with children, slept even less.

Britons already work some of the longest hours in Europe and have far more temptations. Television no longer closes down after the epilogue at 11pm; bars, supermarkets, petrol stations, clubs and other distractions have wiped out the national bedtime with a cup of Ovaltine.

Like anything in short supply, regulated sleep is now becoming big business. Britain, where 16 per cent of employees clock up more than 60 hours a week and we spend longer at work than any other country in Europe, is already considered a rich potential market with everyone from pharmaceutical companies to bed manufacturers queuing up to take advantage. An estimated 13 million sleeping pills were prescribed in the UK last year, and some companies have woken up to the potential ofthe pyjama pound.

Among the more unusual of these is MetroNaps, an American company already offering "midday rest facilities" in New York's Empire State Building. The business, which sells 20-minute naps on chaises longues on the 24th floor, is planning to open a similar facility in London soon.

"Sleep deprivation is the trend of trends," said co-founder of MetroNaps, Arshad Chowdhury. "People have been working more and more, and sleeping less and less. Something has to give. The pressure on people to be active is incredibly high. Sleep is falling lower and lower down the list of priorities."

Short rests in the middle of the day, like those offered by MetroNaps, could be the answer, the Demos report will argue. "There is a lot of evidence to suggest that a short nap in the afternoon will leave you refreshed for the next four or five hours," Mr Leadbeater said. "We need to make it easier for people to sleep when they're not in the bedroom - either on roll-out beds in the workplace, or at other places offering a similar service.

"When you don't get enough sleep, you are far more prone to accidents, your attention to detail goes down and you're much less likely to be creative. An ill-slept workforce is a recipe for disaster."

Up to a quarter of road accidents in the UK are associated with tiredness, and there is also evidence linking a lack of sleep to health problems ranging from diabetes to cancer.

But it is not just the amount of rest we are getting that is suffering. The quality of our sleep is also lower than ever before. Dr Neil Stanley, director of sleep research at the University of Surrey, said we are ignoring our bodies' natural sleep patterns, which have been "acutely honed over millions of years". "We don't go to bed when we're tired: we go when the programme's finished. We've forgotten how to relax, and that is affecting the quality of our sleep. We've entered a state of tiredness as a society."

But Professor Jim Horne, of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough, said: "We have to separate tiredness from sleepiness. Just because people can take more sleep doesn't necessarily mean that they need it. We can sleep for indulgence, in the same way that we can drink more or eat more than our bodies need."

The young professional

'There is just too much living to be done'

Mickey Madgett, 28, is an art director at an advertising agency in London. He often works irregular hours, and frequently goes out drinking until the early morning. He often has as little as two or three hours' sleep a night.

"I'll normally party towards the end of the working week. Often I just go out for a couple of drinks to unwind after work, and before I know it I'm trying to find my way home for a couple of hours' kip the next morning. There's just too much living to be done: I haven't got time to worry about sleeping. Power naps would be a great idea, but I don't think my company would buy it somehow."

The harassed mother

'With young kids there's no such thing as a lie-in'

Alison Berry, 34, has two daughters, aged four and two. She works part-time as a marketing manager at toy manufacturers Hasbro, and is starting her own business: a website for children's gifts. She gets five-and-a-half to six hours' sleep a night.

"I never, ever get enough sleep.I'm in bed between midnight and one o'clock, and then I have to be up and ready to go at 6.30am. I spend every waking hour I'm not at the office working on the site. I'll start on it after dinner, and then just keep going until I'm ready to fall. It's not easy to catch up on the sleep at weekends either - with young kids there's no such thing as a lie-in."

The early riser

'Staying awake can get quite addictive'

Geoff Lloyd, 31, presents the Virgin Radio Breakfast Show as one half of 'Pete and Geoff'. He starts work at 4.45am, and goes on air at 6am. He talks to 1.2 million listeners a day on as little as four hours' sleep.

"There comes a point when staying awake can get quite addictive - it's something to do with the chemicals in your brain. It's actually quite nice: not exactly like watching yourself from above, but perhaps like watching yourself from a couple of feet behind.

"I try to catch up on sleep in the afternoon, but it's hard, especially in the summer. You just feel like there's a life out there to be had, and you want it."