The two largest time commitments for most adults on this planet — sleep and work — too often make uneasy bedfellows. The proliferation of nonstandard work schedules and, for many, the outright abandonment of schedules have made traditional daytime-weekday patterns less common. Approximately one in five American workers now functions under some variety of nonstandard schedule. Meanwhile, about half of the nation’s night-shift workers sleep six hours or less per day. The demands of other unconventional arrangements, such as multiple job-holding and independent contracting, have also contributed to the sleep deprivation that plagues much of the workforce.
Add it all up and roughly thirty percent of working Americans survive on less than six hours of unconscious rest a day. They exist on the groggy side of a sleep divide, at an uncomfortable and unhealthful distance from the relatively well-rested majority of employees. Lost sleep impairs decision-making capability, undercuts productivity, and contributes to expensive adverse health effects, including elevated risks of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions.
Unfortunately, a deeply embedded American cultural tradition dismisses sleep as a waste of time. At least since General Electric founder Thomas Edison declared sleep “an absurdity, a bad habit” a century ago, many successful business leaders have promoted a virtual cult of overextended wakefulness, often amplified by considerable media attention to their behavior and commentary. From the Wall Street dynamos monitoring and mastering global financial markets at all hours of the day and night to the NFL coaches living all season in their offices, a sizable contingent of self-disciplined professionals in positions of authority continue to perpetuate unhealthful patterns by pushing themselves and others under their control to turn work into a restless marathon.
The primary message — sometimes implicit, often boastfully announced — is that extended sleeplessness represents a form of masculine strength, leaving those taking a moderate amount of rest as effeminate weaklings destined to lose out in fierce marketplace competition. As one corporate executive put it not long ago, “Sleep is for sissies.” Senior partners in high-powered law firms ask striving young associates preparing for a big case whether they would rather sleep or win.
This dangerous attitude has come under mounting criticism. Journalist Edward Helmore captured the shifting climate of opinion at the dawn of the new millennium, dismissing Donald Trump (perhaps too hastily) as “the last cheerleader of sleeplessness” and presenting as a substitute role model Albert Einstein, who dozed ten hours a day. An abundance of scientific findings, many from research sponsored by the military and NASA, has led many executives to abandon the quest to minimize sleep unreasonably. Some prominent figures, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, openly embrace and advocate a moderate alternative. Moreover, the growing ranks of proponents of work-life balance have tied male champions of heroic wakefulness to outmoded standards that took little or no account of time-consuming domestic duties.
The heartening result is that there is a growing appreciation of the value of sleep-promoting policies and practices within the business community. Arianna Huffington is a role model in this regard. Beyond raising the visibility of the problems stemming from chronic sleep deprivation and shaping the public conversation about it, she has instituted practical reforms in her own company. The state-of-the-art nap rooms at the New York offices of the Huffington Post allow employees a productivity-enhancing respite. Other major employers permitting and even encouraging napping on their premises include Nike, Google, and Time Warner.
Other commonplace efforts at workplace health promotion promise to pay dividends for sleep health, even as they rein in health benefit expenditures. Obstructive sleep apnea has reached epidemic proportions, sending countless men and women to work in an unrested or underrested state. Obesity sits at the top of the list of risk factors for this sleep-wrecking disorder. Human resource managers and other managerial decision makers have seized on their numerous opportunities to intervene to promote employee weight loss. Provision of either onsite fitness facilities or subsidies for membership in offsite fitness centers is a well-established benefit at many companies. Many worksite vending machines now stock more healthful offerings than the fattening fare that has long predominated. Wider recognition of the link between excess body weight and sleep disruption should help to diffuse further these health-promotion initiatives.
There is another major change, however, that more companies should be making – and that to depends mostly on their resolve. Rearrangement of work schedules virtually always lies within the realm of management prerogative. Some enlightened employers have retreated from use of the most physiologically unnatural schedules, such as rapidly rotating shifts. Some have granted varieties of flexible working time that give the employee considerable discretion in finding sufficient time to sleep. More radical possibilities might extend to reassessing more fully the real costs of graveyard shifts and other nonstandard schedules.
That firms would curtail or eliminate sleep-disrupting work schedules is admittedly an improbable move – it would certainly go against the grain in our nonstop 24/7 world. But such measures would aid significantly in bridging the growing sleep divide in working America.
– by Alan Derickson
Originally at http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/11/real-men-go-to-sleep/
Fri 15 Nov 13