It seems as though every day we are reading another story about a high-powered executive man or woman who sings their own praises and powers regarding how little sleep they need or get. The idea of the successful entrepreneur grabbing a couple of hours of sleep under their desk or the tales of Margaret Thatcher and Thomas Edison requiring fewer than four hours of rest per night have traditionally been held up as examples of how hard work equates to success.
Science has been telling us that this type of sleep deprivation is incredibly unhealthy, and the message has been getting across. More and more companies are trying to send the message that sleep is as critical as nutrition and exercise, and corporations are starting to install nap rooms and encourage employees to take breaks and get outside into the fresh air in order to keep them healthy and focused.
The one area where this trend is not reaching is in the lowest-income sections of society. Though admittedly there is a national trend for everybody to be shorting themselves of sleep, it is the group of Americans who do not have high school degrees and who are earning less than $30,000 per year who are getting the least sleep among us. At least half of them are getting six or fewer hours of sleep per night, and many are getting between four and five hours of sleep as a general rule.
Much of this has to do with the fact that lower income Americans often are working more than one job. Though it was common in the 19th century for workers to be expected to work between twelve and sixteen hours per day, that stopped during the industrial revolution, when the 8-hour day became standardized. But just because a person’s shift is restricted to eight hours doesn’t mean that they aren’t trudging off to another job in order to make ends meet. The result is that the people whose wages are the lowest are also being cheated of exposure to sunlight as well as the rest that they need. This in turn puts them at higher risk for a variety of serious medical conditions, including gastrointestinal problems, reproductive issues, increased risk of cardiovascular problems, stroke and diabetes, and obesity.
The health concerns are very real, and they are significant not only in their long term effect but also in their immediate impact on performance and the ability to think clearly. Dr. Florence Comite, an endocrinologist, says that sleep deprived people find that “it’s harder to move from activity to activity. You’re irritable. A threshold that didn’t bother you before may bother you more. Your brain can’t compensate as much. Your reflexes are slower.” But she acknowledges that “there are real facts of life when you need money for survival. It’s risk/benefit. Do you feed your children by working a second job?” The result if that the sleep deprivation can start to show itself at work, and if the boss sees that as a performance issue then you risk being fired. A recent study showed that more then half of night-shift workers have fallen asleep unintentionally in the middle of work.
In addition to the fact that low income people are not getting enough quantity sleep, they are also often facing a shortfall in the quality of the sleep that they are getting. Their sleep is impacted by the environments in which they sleep, and may also be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. Add to that the need to catch public transportation and relying upon the transit systems to get them there on time means that they often end up spending valuable time in which they could be sleeping waiting in a bus shelter or at a train stop. Making matters even worse is the fact that this group is among the least likely to be exercising – they simply do not have the time for it.
Though low-income people are the group that seems to be suffering the most from sleep deprivation, they are certainly not they only ones. Many studies have shown that once a worker exceeds forty hours on the job the quality of their work begins to diminish and the number of mistakes that they make increases. Add to that the issue of getting less than seven hours of sleep per night and you find people having trouble learning, remembering and performing up to their normal ability. The American Automobile Association estimates that almost fifteen percent of fatal car accidents are a result of drivers operating their vehicles while feeling fatigued, and a recent survey showed that forty percent of American drivers admitted to having fallen asleep behind the wheel while driving. Concerns about the number of drivers who are falling asleep behind the wheel continues to grow, particularly as more and more high profile accidents are capturing the attention and concern of the American public. The recent truck accident involving comedian Tracey Morgan was widely publicized, in part because the driver of the truck is said to have gone for a full 24-hours of work without sleep.
Addressing this issue may require a societal change in the way that we prioritize sleep, but in the meantime experts believe that there are certain things that companies can do to alleviate the problem. The breaks that are currently provided, and during which workers often try to awaken themselves by drinking cup after cup of coffee, would be more productive if they extended to twenty minutes of time and space was provided for employees to take a quick, refreshing nap. Another recent study revealed that workers who get frequent breaks of twenty minutes between 52 minutes of focused work are actually far more productive than those who work straight through at their desk or other responsibility.