As Americans, we are masters of stretching more use out of every day. From the invention of the light bulb to the introduction of the oh-so-addictive Blackberry, we make every second count. After all, to us, “time is money.” While other cultures take 2-hour lunches and siestas during the hot middle of the day, we have fast food, drive-thrus, energy drinks, and air conditioning to keep us on the go around the clock.
The only problem is that our 24/7 society may now be reaching a stage where we are putting our health and safety at risk. At the National Sleep Foundation’s (NSF’s) Sleep and Obesity Conference in Washington, DC, earlier this year, I had the pleasure of seeing the famous cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s new documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle a century ago, it makes a powerful argument that there is something wrong with American work culture. The difference is that now instead of the competitive pressures of capitalism forcing people to risk their lives inside factories, they are now risking their lives on the drive home because of extended work hours that create severe sleep deprivation.
Wexler focuses on the field he knows best, the Los Angeles entertainment industry. There, even low-wage jobs are highly desirable because of the “glamour” of Hollywood and, to be hired, you must be willing to work frequent 15-or-more-hour shifts back to back, he explains. He also describes how two film-crew employees have died in the past few years because they fell asleep at the wheel on the way home.
It is hard to disagree with the need for work-hour restrictions in all industries when Wexler interviews the young widows of the men who died. However, as he also shows, creating such restrictions is almost impossible because it goes against our culture. We do not want a “nanny” state, as some term European countries with extensive social services and health and safety regulations. In addition, no one is forced to work long hours, and long hours are a way for people not opposed to them to get ahead in competitive fields such as law, medicine, and entertainment. In essence, by demonstrating a greater ability to endure a loss of sleep and personal time, they can advance more quickly in their careers and earn extra pay.
The problem, I think, is that this emphasis on measuring hard work by time spent working rather than by the quality of the work produced seems to be spreading to all parts of society, and especially to children. While it is one thing for lawyers to compete for partner by billing more hours than the next guy and aspiring physicians to push each other to work 30 hours or more without rest in residency programs, it is quite another when teenagers who want to get into top colleges feel pressure to fill their days with so many college-application-boosting activities that there is hardly room for sleep.
According to the latest NSF in America Poll on children between the ages of 11 and 17, 90% of parents think their adolescent children are getting enough sleep while only 44% of adolescents themselves think so. Furthermore, while experts believe adolescents need at least 9 hours of sleep per night, only 20% of those surveyed got this much, and the problem only got worse the older the teenagers were. By 12th grade, less than 5% of the adolescents surveyed were getting the optimal 9 hours of sleep per night.
The NSF’s slogan for 2006 is “Sleep: As important as diet and exercise, only easier.” It is a catchy and cute approach, but there is nothing cute about the problem of sleep deprivation. Research is increasingly showing that equating long work with hard work is making Americans more overweight, less fit, and deadlier on the road. And until our culture stops seeing sleep deprivation as a sign of industriousness instead of illness, this problem is here to stay.