A few weeks ago, I was in my car headed to pick up some new shirts (my three-year-long journey to find the perfect slouchy t-shirt was finally over – a harrowing odyssey for another time) when an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show caught my ear.
Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington was on the air promoting her latest book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. In the interview, Huffington spoke about about our current global sleep crisis — covering everything from harmful health consequences to clouded decision making associated with sleep deprivation. She explained the effects that sleep deprivation often has on mental health and cognition, then notably touched on the history of sleep culture in professional settings.
We hear things like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “Money never sleeps,” and “You snooze, you lose,” all the time. At this year’s White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told those gathered that, at the end of his term, he would join in their work, but not without getting three to four months’ sleep first.
A few days ago, prominent NBA journalist Zach Lowe tweeted about the lionization of people who are sleep deprived.
As I became more exposed to ideas connecting sleep deprivation to work ethic — both on social media and in my personal and professional lives — I began to wonder, “Why on Earth do we glorify the people who perpetuate such an unhealthy lifestyle?”
Granted, it’s probably easier for Arianna Huffington to sleep well given her abundance of resources, but let’s not shoot the messenger. Regardless of who it’s coming from, the notion that we need to reevaluate the way we prioritize sleep is pretty much unarguably valid.
Sure, there are people who can productively function on just a couple hours of sleep every night. They’re called short sleepers, and if you think you’re among them, you’re almost certainly wrong. Only about one to three percent of people possess the gene mutation that makes them resistant to the effects of sleep loss. The rest of us require somewhere around seven hours to function successfully.
If you don’t think this is a problem, consider the financial sector, where sleep deprivation is worn like a badge of honor and a mountain of vacation days is the ultimate gold star. Recently, a girl I went to high school with decided to live directly across the street from her office at Goldman Sachs, so that when she did leave the office at 11 p.m., she wouldn’t have far to travel before returning the next morning at 7 a.m. What’s worse is that when I heard her story, I couldn’t help wondering, “Am I not doing enough if I have time to shower and eat outside of the office?”
On college campuses, the sentiment is similar. Two years ago, a group of Georgetown students surveyed their classmates about sleep culture and found that 50 out of 50 students considered the school’s sleep culture unhealthy. One of the students surveyed said, “Sometimes it feels as though you can’t or shouldn’t go to sleep while others you know are still up and doing work because it feels like you are slacking, or like others are judging that you do less work than they do.”
Worse still is the sense of machismo attached to sleep deprivation:
I shouldn’t feel guilty sharing that I sleep nine hours every night, but it’s hard not to when people like presidential hopeful Donald Trump brag that his “great temperament for success” can be linked to his ability to function without sleep. Though the raw chicken-looking bags under his eyes tell a different story.
The logic of sleeping less and working more is ass-backwards. Yes, without sleeping you might be putting in “more” hours at the office, but the quality of work you’re doing is sh*t. It’s inefficient and you’re not making well-informed decisions. To make matters worse, you feel tired as hell. It’s no coincidence that the most common Google auto-complete for the phrase, “why am I…” is “so tired?” But feeling tired is the least of your worries. According to the CDC, sleeping less than seven hours per night is associated with increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart, disease, stroke, and mental stress.
Insufficient sleep also impairs cognitive performance. A recent study done at the University of New South Wales found that moderate sleep deprivation produced impairment in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to .1% blood-alcohol levels.
Certainly, there is something to be said for the occasional night-long commitment to complete an assignment, but to cultivate a culture that lionizes such behavior so that it becomes the norm is endlessly damaging. If nothing else, take notice of the arbitrary pride people attach to such an absurd sacrifice. Why do we praise the work ethic of people who prioritize inefficiency and low quality work over necessary rest? What is so admirable about a life of passable productivity and little enjoyment?
It’s worth pondering. Matter of fact, maybe you should sleep on it.