Your new manufactured national panic: sleep hysteria

Getting enough sleep is a serious matter for me.  I had to perform several sleep studies to deal with severe apnea, and it was among the wisest health decisions I’ve made in my life.  I’m well-acquainted with everything that can go wrong for people who don’t get enough sleep.  Having said that to establish my perspective, I’m not at all looking to dismiss today’s Washington Post item on sleep deficiency out of hand.  It contains some solid information.  I’m just guardedly skeptical about the degree of sensationalism with which this is presented.  It’s a real problem, but it can also be spun into the latest hysterical sweetmeat for a hypochondriac culture that loves discussing what’s “wrong” with everyone.  

A great many of these stories also boil down to laments about how we’re all working too hard, even though we have an economy with a shrunken workforce, chronic high unemployment, and a rising tide of part-time jobs replacing full-time work.  I know this will sound like the harsh skepticism of an old-fashioned grouch, but I can’t help thinking the current generation has developed an appetite for mythology that shows them working as hard, or even harder, than their fabled parents and grandparents.  We have access to technologies that make nearly every job easier and more productive than ever before, but headlines about how we’re working ourselves to death – literally the case with this WaPo piece, and I mean “literally” in the sense that the headline “Americans Are Trading Sleep For Work, and It’s Literally Killing Us” actually contains the word “literally” – are a sure-fire way to draw approving public attention.  

The “hard work is killing us” genre has become a hardy media perennial.  The computer you’re looking at right now, the chair you’re sitting in, the food you ate for breakfast or lunch, the stress of dealing with your demanding managers, and the contents of your pockets are also killing you.  Everything is killing you.  Frankly, it’s a wonder you don’t keel over halfway through reading this blog post.  Can you believe there are people who actually think the government shouldn’t be controlling our health care and micro-regulating every aspect of our lives to protect us from this perpetual moral peril?  How did anyone make it through the dark decades when restaurant menus didn’t include government-mandated calorie counts?  

Back to the sleep-shortage business, in addition to the sensational “jobs are literally killing us” assertion – repeated verbatim in the body of the article, lest we think this is another case of headline writers gone wild – there are conflicting assessments of what constitutes sleep deprivation.  The article begins by relating a poll finding that “more than one-third of American adults report getting less than 7 hours of sleep on weekdays, and many of them try to sleep extra-long on weekends to make up for it,” followed by a list of all the health issues that can develop due to insufficient sleep (from hypertension to fatal car accidents as a result of drowsy driving.)  But then the graph of time spent on various activities, upon which the entire article is built, defines “short sleepers” as people who get less than six hours a night, while normal sleepers get 6 to 11 hours.  What percentage of average people can truly be considered sleep-deprived if they get less than eleven hours of sleep a night?

This leads to the headline-grabbing assertion about the fatal consequences of hard work:

Compared to normal sleepers, so-called “short sleepers” — those who are getting 6 hours or less on weeknights — worked 1.5 more hours on weekdays and nearly 2 hours more on weekends and holidays. Perhaps not surprisingly, “the highest odds of being a short sleeper were found among adults working multiple jobs, who were 61 percent more likely than others to report sleeping 6 hours or less on weekdays,” according to a press release about the study.

To put it another way: to the extent that we’re trading sleep for work, our jobs are literally killing us.

Aside from work, commuting was the activity most likely to compete with sleep for time, followed by socializing, sleeplessness (e.g., lying in bed unable to sleep), and personal grooming. That latter finding led to this dry observation from the authors: “Although a certain level of body hygiene is important for social and physical well-being, excessive time spent in these activities may reduce sleep time at both ends of the sleep period.”

Okay, wait a second, hold up.  This jump from hypothesis, through a cloud of fuzzy data, to fearsome conclusion is where my skepticism flares up.  It’s an enormous stretch to directly associate a relatively modest amount of overtime work to dramatic sleep loss, especially in an age when everything else we do with our lives is faster and more convenient.  The list of activities we sacrifice sleep to engage in – with “working” atop the graph as an ominously huge bar, followed by little baby bar-bumps for everything else – includes diversions such as “socializing,” “playing games,” and “watching TV” that are more diverting than ever.  I notice housework is nowhere to be found, unless it’s supposed to be subsumed into “grooming.”  Both housework and grooming are far easier than they were a generation or two ago, while working an extra 1.5 hours still eats up the same 1.5 hours it consumed in the Eighties, Sixties, Fifties, and Thirties.  

Would it not be at least equally valid to say the problem lies not with working longer hours, but with the inability of many people to properly allocate the time for all the other activities that keep them from turning in at the proper hour each night?  Perhaps I’m dating myself here, but I can well remember times when a workday ended with a little TV (choosing from a rather limited menu of channels), reading until your eyes drooped, and hitting the pillow.  I’m not arguing for the superiority of that simpler era – I love all the diversions new technologies have brought us.  But I wonder if the problem with insufficient sleep, to the extent such a problem really exists for people who work extra hours, is more a consequence of lost personal discipline amid a sea of convenient amusements that give us plenty of reasons to put off our nightly rendezvous with Morpheus.

Instead, the recommendations run more toward badgering mean old employers to give us more flexible work schedules:

The researchers found no difference in sleep time between private sector and government workers. But interestingly, the self-employed had significantly lower odds of being a short sleeper. This finding led to the researchers prescribing greater flexibility in work schedules, particularly in work start time, as one policy change that could help people sleep more: “making the work start time more flexible may help increase sleep time; even if total time spent working is kept constant,” they conclude.

They also found that for every hour work or class started later in the morning, respondents’ reported getting 20 minutes more sleep. More flexibility in work start times would thus help people naturally disposed to night-owl hours (are you a night-owl? We’ve got a quiz for that). Research suggests that this would lead not only to more productivity in the workplace, but also fewer instances of ethical lapses while on the clock.

Once again I say: hold the phone.  Nobody had such flexible work schedules in times when people were working extremely hard for long hours, without the benefit of our modern understanding of personal health maintenance through diet and exercise, and yet suffering no discernible sleep-deprivation crisis.  I think it would also be fair to say that our sleep equipment – beds, pillows, and such – were less advanced in those times, so we should be enjoying a higher quality of sleep in the hours we slumber today.  The variables singled out for contributing to this crisis have not changed much from the days when no such crisis existed.  And now we’re tossing ethical lapses atop the pile of blame for sleep-eating long work hours?

To conclude as I began, I’m not waving off the importance of getting enough sleep, or dismissing the possibility that a sizable portion of the populace is having problems in this area.  I just wonder if the crisis tone is pitched a bit high, notice that some techniques common among the media are employed to establish that tone, and find the ultimate conclusion a bit too sympatico with certain narratives our culture seems obsessed with.  As with much I see in the press today, I’m not closing my eyes to the reporting; on the contrary, I have further questions.