Poor sleep kills people through medical illnesses, traffic accidents (impaired concentration and decision making), and suicides (relating to mood disorders). Since joining The Education University of Hong Kong in 2015, Dr Esther Lau Yuet-ying, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, has been conducting a long-term research programme that sheds light on the underlying mechanisms of sleep deprivation and its negative effect on emotions, cognition and daily functioning. The findings have been disseminated via public media and workshops to education and government bodies and have led to changes in community attitudes and school policy. They have also resulted in the establishment and strengthening of clinical and consultation support for sleep health in universities and government departments.
Building on her research and clinical experience, Dr Lau has shown how an understanding of the cognitive and emotional consequences of sleep loss or gain inform clinical understanding of sleep disturbances and related psychopathologies, and can influence public health policies and organisational practices. Using online panel studies, laboratory experiments, physiological measures, clinical assessments and subjective reports, Dr Lau’s team investigated the predictors, mediators and consequences of poor sleep.
Dr Lau’s research demonstrates that the quantity and quality of sleep directly affect our outlook on life and the decisions we make. She has built a unique, 10-year longitudinal dataset of over 8,000 students and community adults with over 100 psychosocial-spiritual variables per person to generate the first empirical evidence in the world that sleep quality predicts optimistic or pessimistic attitudes to life, directly and indirectly, through its effect on mood. She also identified a long-term increase in risk taking among young adults who habitually sleep less or irregularly.
Collaborating with local and overseas institutions, Dr Lau and her team uncovered links between sleep, clinical depression and emotional processing biases. They collaborated with the University of Oxford to develop and validate a Chinese version of the Sleep Condition Indicator (SCI) for clinical and research use.
Through extensive media coverage, sleep education, community engagements and professional training, Dr Lau’s research-based advocacy for healthy sleep practices for well-being has resulted in (1) shifts in attitudes and knowledge among both the general public and professionals; (2) a new school policy for a later start time; (3) the creation of a new sleep health initiative in the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF); and (4) early identification of mental health issues by screening college students for sleep-related problems.
Dr Lau also provided both local and global community sleep education through 17 interviews on popular public television programmes, radio broadcasts and newspapers. Her longitudinal research in a boarding school showed that a delayed school start time helps student well-being by increasing the length and quality of their sleep, resulted in a successful policy change at the school.
In collaboration with police psychologists, Dr Lau enhanced the sleep health of police officers through a strategic, multifaceted programme, including seminars for 300 officers and family members, and training on sleep assessment and interventions for all police clinical psychologists. Dr Lau’s evidence-based suggestions helped police officers overcome sleep barriers and provided credible information to share with family and friends, according to a senior HKPF clinical psychologist.
To detect and alleviate academic and mental health issues rooted in sleep problems in college students, Dr Lau trained counsellors in 14 local tertiary institutions to carry out sleep assessments and interventions. Not only did 90% of the counsellors indicate a sharp improvement in their understanding of sleep, 100% of them found her talk beneficial for their practice, evidenced by requests to incorporate the SCI into their practice.