There's an epidemic that's having a devastating impact on young people, and it's failing to get the attention it deserves: sleep deprivation.
That's right, sleep deprivation. A recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that millennials are the most stressed out generation ever. Only 29% reported that they get enough sleep.
According to Dr. Paul Kelley, a sleep scientist at the University of Oxford, the problem is more severe than feeling groggy in the morning. Lack of sleep is actually putting young people's health in danger, he told Mic.
"You've got a situation where it's an epidemic," Kelley said. "People's lives and health are very much at risk."
The problem: Kelley, who has been studying sleep for his entire career, says the key way of measuring sleep deprivation is surprisingly simple: by adding up the total number of hours of sleep someone loses on each working day.
You can figure out that number by subtracting the hours you actually sleep at night from the hours your body naturally needs, usually about eight hours. "Calculate what time you wake up when you have work or school versus what time you wake up when you have no pressures," Kelley told Mic.
Those hours are cumulative, according to Kelley, meaning someone who loses several hours of sleep each night, for five days in a row, accumulates such a large sleep debt that they cannot make it up over the weekend.
"The average person loses two hours of sleep every day by the time they're 14, so that's 10 hours in a week," Kelley told Mic. "This peaks between the ages of 16 to 24, when people lose 10 to 15 hours a week, and only drops back down by the time you get to age 50 or 55, when it becomes an hour or less per day again."
There are several reasons why millennials are particularly vulnerable. As of 2013, about 40% of millennials hold part-time, contract, temp or one-time jobs, and therefore have non-traditional schedules that are not conducive to getting a regular night's rest. Millennials are also the screen-addicted generation, according to Kelley, and science shows using an electronic device before bed makes it harder to fall asleep.
The result can be simply devastating. "Your body clock is timed, and if it's pushed in the wrong direction by sleep loss, that affects all major body systems," Kelley told Mic. "It affects every part of your cognitive behavior and every part of your emotional responses."
Sleep deprivation may be uniquely hurting millennials, but there are also passionate young entrepreneurs who are trying to tackle the problem.
One such company is Casper, a startup based in New York City, often described as the "Warby Parker of mattresses." Casper has experienced remarkable growth since selling its first mattress online in 2014.
Casper's initial goal is to make mattress shopping simple and cheap without sacrificing quality. According to co-founder and CEO Philip Krim, Casper actually started somewhat by accident, when the company's five co-founders were pursuing other businesses in a coworking space in New York City and often passing out in beanbag chairs because they weren't getting enough sleep.
"Everyone was working on a startup and they were putting in 20 hours per day and they weren't sleeping," Krim told Mic during a recent interview in the company's New York City office. "That led to a discussion about how buying mattresses was one of the worst experiences. There was no brand that resonated with us. We thought the five of us had the right background and experience to build a better way to buy such an important product."
One of the main things the founders believed to be difficult about shopping for mattresses was that customers did not know what they wanted. Casper spent months researching and testing how to develop a mattress that was cheap and would be satisfying across the board. Since its inception, Casper has expanded to developing pillows following a similar "one for all" concept. Beyond the products, the company also aims to fundamentally change the conversation we millennials have around sleep.
Casper is catching on. Sales reached $1 million after just a month, and climbed to $100 million by the end of 2015. The company has also raised about $70 million from investors to date, and recently began selling pillows and sheets to complement its successful mattress line.
But spend any time with the company's founders, and it's evident that Casper's ambitions go far beyond selling mattresses, pillows or sheets. The company is on a mission to change the way Americans sleep, and its founders believe they can play a pivotal role in tackling the millennial sleep epidemic.
That all starts by tackling the stigma associated with sleep head-on. Indeed, according to Kelley, the pervasive belief that sleep is at odds with hard work is what makes the problem so difficult to solve.
Casper co-founder Neil Parikh, 26, whose father is a sleep doctor, says he believes it's possible to overturn the stigma. "We see it as more of an opportunity to shift ... how people are sleeping," Parikh told Mic. "That whole investment-banking, consulting, working-100-hours-per-week generation is coming to an impasse. With the advent of a lot of companies that are thinking about wellness, people are starting to think about this a lot more."
So how does a mattress company go about handling a problem as expansive as overturning the widespread stigma around sleep?
Step one, says Parikh, is straightforward: sell more mattresses. The idea is that previously, people did not know what they were looking for when it came to mattresses and ultimately ended up making decisions they regretted. "Mattresses are an amazing entry point because there's an immediate impact point there," Parikh told Mic. "If you have a better mattress, you're inherently going to sleep better. It is an awful experience going into a store [to buy a mattress], so this is a place we can make a high impact very quickly."
Step two is more complicated, and involves raising awareness about the dangers associated with sleep deprivation in order to shift behavior. "Phase two is the more active stuff, like how are we going to nudge you to go to bed earlier, or to stop drinking as much before you go to sleep, or to not exercise at a certain time," Parikh told Mic. "That part is a little bit harder."
To do so, Casper recently made its first foray into original content, by launching an online health and wellness site called Van Winkle's, which publishes a range of daily stories, almost all revolving around sleep. Some of the site's most popular posts, according to Krim, have been an August 2015 story on the hidden benefits of reading before bed and an October 2015 investigative story on the sleep disorders soldiers face when returning from war.
By making sleep top of mind, Casper's founder believe they can play a role in shifting behavior. Krim sees a parallel to the strategy Nike has employed to become a top corporation. "I think Nike promotes athleticism, and that has so many broad benefits on a wider scale," Krim told Mic. "With Casper, we often talk about promoting sleep on a global basis. It starts with the mattress for us, but there's a bigger picture outside of the commercial relationship."
"We want to be the Nike of sleep one day," Parikh told Mic.
Will it all work? Casper's founders are well aware that content alone cannot shift the societal stigma around sleep. But they believe they are uniquely positioned to promote pragmatic solutions that can help millennials get more rest. "Clinical science has always said, 'You have to sleep X number of hours. You can't drink before bed,'" Parikh told Mic. "The reality of the situation is that no one ever does that."
"We try not to tell people you have to sleep eight hours a night because that's a lost cause. So we have to figure out ways for [people to get more sleep] on their own terms. We're hoping people will start investing in sleep earlier on, when they're young."
Whether or not Casper can accomplish its broader goal remains unclear. But the team takes inspiration from the rapid pace at which their mattress business is growing.
"With millennials, the fact that people are engaging with us is exciting, because it means people are making an active choice to invest in their sleep," Parikh told Mic. "That has basically proved a little bit of our thesis that we can get younger people to care about it."