The better off sleep better

4 March 2011

But how happy you are in your job affects the quality of your sleep

The employed and self-employed enjoy much better sleep than those out of work, according to Understanding Society, the world’s largest longitudinal household study. Those who are unemployed are over 40 per cent more likely to report difficulty staying asleep than those in employment (having controlled for age and gender differences). However, job satisfaction affects the quality of sleep with 33 per cent of the most dissatisfied employees report poor sleep quality compared to only 18 per cent of the most satisfied.

Analysis of the early data from Understanding Society based on 14,000 UK households found that overall the best sleep was reported by people with higher levels of education and by married people. The type of work a person does also impacts on sleep, with those in routine occupations reporting worse sleep than those in professional occupations.

Professor Sara Arber at the University of Surrey who analysed the findings said: "Given the links between sleep, social and economic circumstances and poor health found in this and other surveys, health promotion campaigns should be open to the possibility that the increased incidence of sleep problems among the disadvantaged in society may be one factor leading to their poorer health."

Understanding Society is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. It follows 40,000 UK household over many years, and sleep data will be collected regularly.

Initial analysis of the sleep data collected in the first survey also found that:

Men and women

  • women are more likely to report problems getting to sleep within 30 minutes, 24 per cent on three or more nights a week, compared to 18 per cent of men
  • problems getting to sleep on three or more nights per week are particularly high under age 25, then decline slightly for men with age, but increase with age for women
  • half of men and women over age 65 report sleep maintenance problems on three or more nights a week, compared to under a fifth of men and a third of women under 25
  • More men than women report that snoring or coughing disturbs their sleep, 30 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women more than once a week
  • women are more likely to negatively rate their sleep quality, 26 per cent compared to 20 per cent of men

Sleep medication

  • one in 10 people report taking sleeping medication on three or more nights a week (9 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women)
  • 25 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men over 85 report taking sleeping medication on three or more nights a week

Researchers working on Understanding Society have also examined the data from the perspective of work and sleep. 15,000 employees were asked questions about their work and sleep patterns.

Work and length of sleep

  • 14 per cent of men and women working part-time sleep for more than eight hours per night, declining to about 6 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women for those working more than 30 hours per week, and remaining at this level even for people working very long hours (more than 48 hours per week)
  • However, for people of both genders working long hours brings an increase in shorter sleep periods: 14 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men working more than 48 hours sleep less than six hours per night
  • Poor sleep quality is more frequently reported by long-hours workers and especially among women: 31 per cent of long-hours women report poor sleep quality compared to only 23 per cent of those who work 31–48 hours per week
  • Looking at these findings altogether suggests that the increase in shorter sleep periods for those working long hours is not only due to time constraints but other pressures such as stress

Managerial duties

  • Only 6 per cent of managers report more than eight hours sleep per night compared to 11 per cent of those without managerial responsibilities

Job satisfaction and sleep

  • 14 per cent of respondents least satisfied with their jobs reported regularly sleeping for less than six hours per night, compared with only 8 per cent of those most satisfied with work

The first findings book is published online. Individual chapters are also available to download.

The first set of data from Understanding Society is now available for researchers to use in their analysis. It can be accessed via the Economic and Social Data Service.

For further information contact:

ISER Press Office:

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Sara Arber is a professor of sociology co-director of the Centre for Research into Ageing and Gender (CRAG) at the University of Surrey. Sara’s internationally recognised research has spanned inequalities in health, ageing and gender and has latterly pioneered the sociology of sleep. Mark Bryan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Social and Economic Research. His research interests include working time, the impacts of training, the low-paid labour market, informal care giving, and the gender pay gap.
  2. The findings above are taken from two chapters of 'Understanding Society: Early findings from the first wave of the UK’s household longitudinal study'. Chapter 10 'Social and Health Patterning of Sleep Quality and Duration' by Sara Arber and Robert Meadows and chapter 5 'Measuring Work: prospects for labour market research in Understanding Society' by Mark L Bryan.
  3. Understanding Society is a world leading study of the socio-economic circumstances in 40,000 British households. The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and wellbeing, their financial circumstances and personal relationships. Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people's environment influences their health.
  4. Understanding Society has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivers the Study.
  5. The ESRC have contributed £27 million towards the funding of Understanding Society, and have successfully secured a total of £19.4 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Large Facilities Capital Fund. A further £2.61 million has been secured from a consortium of Government Departments. This funding will support the first five waves of the study until 2015. It is envisaged that the study will continue for up to 20 years.
  6. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.