Sleep Debt: Can You Catch Up On Lost Sleep?

We’ve all thought it: this weekend, I’m staying in to indulge in some couch time and catch up on lost sleep.

Maybe you did that last weekend, when you woke up early on Sunday morning. But, instead of getting up, decided to rest a little longer with the hope of catching up on sleep you lost thanks to a few late nights last week.

But can you actually catch up on lost sleep?

To answer this, we need to look at sleep debt – what it is, how it is accrued and how do we, so to speak, “pay it back”?

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of insufficient, poor quality or reduced sleep, regardless of its cause.

The most alarming part of sleep debt is that we accumulate it even when we don’t know it. Even just a few minutes over the course of a week – something you generally wouldn’t even think twice about – can quickly build up into hours.

How is sleep debt accrued?

45 minutes here, an hour there – losing a bit of sleep doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But it’s when those minutes turn into hours that sleep debt starts to build up.

And the longer you leave it, the harder it is to pay back.

To put it into context, here’s a simple example:

Say you generally go to sleep at 10pm and get up around 7am every weekday morning. This week, however, you were out late on three occasions, and didn’t go to sleep until around midnight each night. You still had to get up at 7 the next day, so, after just one week, you’re six hours in debt.

You might think an extra hour or two in bed on Sunday morning might solve your sleepiness, but a simple calculation tells us you will still be four of five hours in debt.  And the longer you leave it, the harder it is to pay back.

Sleep debt eventually turns into sleep deprivation, bringing along with it a slew of physical and mental impairments.

How does sleep debt affect us?

Fatigue or drowsiness, does not feel good – especially when you have a demanding schedule. Heavy eyelids, an aching body and the inability to concentrate at work means your day drags and you are often unable to get on top of even the most basic tasks.

Mental fatigue

When we are tired, our mental state suffers, too.

At work, with the kids, or in the car – fatigue can hit us anywhere. If you’re struggling to type word after word on the computer or you can’t quite seem to remember how you got to this intersection while driving home from work, you’re putting yourself (and others) at risk.

You might also suffer from:


  • Poor concentration
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability


How do you repay sleep debt?

Temporary payments

Just like someone would cross their fingers and hope that a bounced cheque can buy them a little more time, there are a few temporary things people do to delay sleep and postpone paying back their sleep debt.

These payments, however, are short-lived and are not sustainable:

Drink coffee – a temporary fatigue/drowsiness fixer, caffeine can help you feel more energised, but only momentarily

Move – get up from your desk, take a walk around, or pound the pavement for ten minutes

Take a power nap – Set aside 15 minutes to completely switch off from your phone, work, kids, whatever – and just rest

Put on your favourite music – it might help energise you and pep you up

Catch up on lost sleep: it’s harder than just a “good night’s sleep”

While the final judgment hasn’t been reached on whether you can or cannot catch up on lost sleep, what we do know is that repaying sleep debt isn’t as simple as having a sleep in on Saturday morning.

Just half an hour of reduced or disturbed sleep per night equals three-and-a-half hours of sleep deprivation per week. Before you know it, a month has passed, and you’re already 14 hours behind what your body needs. One Sunday morning sleep in won’t repay that. (And even a phenomenal eight-hour sleep still leaves you six hours in debt!)

Consistency is key

Before you think you can offset one bad night’s sleep with good sleep the next night, remember that good quality sleep as well as good sleeping habits can’t become routine overnight. You’ve got to work hard towards creating a sustainable sleep routine that provides you with the rest you need.

Good sleeping habits include:


  • Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time every day (yes, even on the weekend!)
  • Listening to your body: allow yourself to naturally wake up without an alarm clock (this can really tell you how tired you are)
  • Avoiding bright light from TVs, laptops and smartphones right before bed
  • Creating a “wind-down” routine that allows you to feel calm and relaxed before sleep
  • Upgrading your pillows or mattress if they are affecting your sleep
  • Avoiding coffee, alcohol or cigarettes at night


Worried about employees racking up a big sleep debt?

Research has proven well-rested workers are more productive, make fewer mistakes and take fewer sick days. And even if you are encouraging  your workers to sleep the required hours when they aren’t at work, how can you ensure they are showing up to work well-rested?

Some companies are now addressing this by paying their employees to sleep more. Through wearable technology employees can volunteer to have their sleep tracked and after a certain number of nights of seven or more hours sleep, they can earn a bonus payment. The CEO says this additional sleep will positively affect the company’s bottom line.

Your employees are your best assets, and if they aren’t getting enough sleep, or their job entails monotonous tasks they may be in danger. So why on earth wouldn’t you protect them from the dangers of drowsy driving and sleep debt?