My supervisor at work sent out an email with a link to the piece, “1 in 3 Americans Gets Less Than 7 Hours of Sleep: CDC”, from HealthDay magazine, along with a comment that among our circle of colleagues (including him and me) it was more like “3 out of 3”. I understood my coworker’s good intentions in acknowledging that our team was understaffed and all the extra work that caused. But I also felt that maybe the comment was tapping into what I see as an assumed mythology in many American workplaces that working too hard is a badge of honor. (See my piece “American Calvin”).
I really don’t think it is healthy for our American culture to continue to perpetuate that whole line of conventional wisdom. So I felt compelled to reply, given other conventional wisdom from the 1960s (that I think is still appropriate) which states that “you are either part of the problem or part of the solution”. My email reply to my boss acknowledged his well intentioned acknowledgement of all of us, but also said, “What concerns me is that in our culture it is such a badge of honor to not get enough sleep, and wreck your immune system and your health in the process. Don’t count me in your ‘3 out of 3’ please!… *g*”.
The article he forwarded cited a U.S. Center for Disease Control study comparing sleep habits today vs thirty years ago…
More than one-third of Americans routinely sleep fewer than seven hours a night, which affects their concentration and general health, new government research shows. Insufficient sleep also impairs work performance and the ability to drive safely… “Over the last 20 years there has been a decline in overall sleep duration in adults,” said lead author of one report… Changing lifestyle habits, including longer workdays and late nights on the computer, have pared away much-needed sleep time, she noted. “Within our culture there seems to be a belief that sleep isn’t a part of overall essential health,” she said.
I believe I did some significant damage to my own health for a decade, particularly doing “late nights on the computer” and getting way too little sleep, as my way of “medicating” all the stresses and strains of my life at the time. I am now regularly taking blood-pressure and cholesterol medication, in my opinion, because of the effects of that decade of lack of sleep.
Given my own experience, I want to somehow contribute to the solution of exorcising our culture’s “work ’til you drop” mentality, which I believe is woven together with our “shop ’til you drop” ethos as well. All of which I believe contributed to our recent recession and all the extra stress that caused, adding to the vicious circle of overwork and “medication” for that overwork.
For the past thirty years I have been in volunteer and paid positions where I have recruited, coordinated, and otherwise worked closely with other volunteers. From that experience I have learned that when people can give what they give to others freely (while still being acknowledged for and feeling good about what they give) without it taking some sort of “toll” on them, that all is well. But when people as volunteers either push themselves or are pushed (pleaded with or coerced by others) beyond the point of giving freely to a place of feeling “owed”, then that is a recipe for burnout, dissension, and other trouble.
I have seen way too many volunteers (who could not say “no” to mine or someone else’s nth request that pushed them over that line) completely change there attitude and approach to their volunteer work. It is not a pretty sight, and I have learned to listen carefully to others, and to myself as well, to detect when that line may be being crossed. So when anybody asks me to do something these days that I am considering saying “yes” to, I always ask myself, “Can I give this freely?” If the answer is not clearly yes I have finally learned to say so. And when I ask a fellow volunteer to do one more thing, and sense that initial bit of resistance, I have learned to back off rather than push.
Given that this rule has proven to work very well for me working with volunteers, I am beginning to see its application to the world of paid work as well. It may seem counterintuitive to some, thinking that the very reason they are getting paid is precisely to mitigate the psychic toll it is taking on them. That is in essence the “work ’til you drop” mentality that I felt was lurking somewhere behind my colleagues email comment (though unintended I think) and seems endemic in our culture.
Understanding that I see my paid work as my “day job” and not what I would be doing with my time if money were not an issue, still I am happy to contribute what I do to the colleagues I work with and the company I work for. I am given the flexibility to approach my work and structure my time the way I want to, working a compressed week that gives me most of three days off each week (and plenty of vacation time to take additional days here and there when I really want to). I do things my way and am acknowledged for my singular contribution. Except perhaps for a particularly frustrating day, I leave work energized rather than spent. That all feels like I’m able to give it freely rather than having it take a toll on me.
I can even report that I generally get around seven hours sleep a night these days (and occasionally eight)! And as an immediate benefit, I find that I generally do not catch those colds that lately have been working their way through many of my comrades.
Given all the blessing of my work situation (including a living wage and more so and all the privilege that brings to me) I acknowledge that many of us work for less than that living wage, if we can find paid work at all. And others among us may be well paid but pay a heavy cost in long-hours, frustrating circumstances, bosses and other colleagues, or are otherwise stressed out by our jobs.
Those are real issues to deal with, so it seems to me critical that we don’t exacerbate those issues by piling on all this old Calvinist mythology that work and material success are noble, and work that goes beyond that and takes its daily toll is the noblest of all. A mythology and conventional wisdom that is always pushing people, the way I am now seeing things, to give more than they can freely give.
In fact, I am thinking that paying attention to what you and I and others can freely give, including having the opportunity to get at least seven hours of sleep a night, could well be transformative in all aspects of our society. Perhaps lessening all those things we do to “medicate” and compensate for the toll of what we give but cannot give without a price paid.