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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Sleep is Still Underrated

Americans, especially American millennials, work too much. Before the technological revolution that has been in full swing (and shows no signs of slowing down) in the past several decades, there was an almost universal assumption that new technologies would somehow pick up the slack of the modern worker and usher in a new age of luxury, in which machines did most of the work and employees were simply their custodians. Advertising for home appliances is perhaps most emblematic of this mindset, wherein vacuum cleaners, microwaves, dishwashers, and their ilk would give the overworked housewife ample opportunity to simply sit and read a magazine while the house cleaned itself.

Instead, our careers took over our lives. The stereotypical housewife is now a stereotypical work junkie, as are the rest of us; continually hopping across careers, building portfolios and resumes, and increasingly trying to find meaning in our work. Social media celebrities like the infamous Gary Vaynerchuck espouse ‘the grind,’ and promote working harder and longer.

In a highly competitive sector of a culture that esteems hard work as its own virtue, the end seems to justify the means, even if it can be at the cost of overall physical and mental health. The issue is exacerbated when these harmful side effects of overwork may not manifest when a worker is in their healthy young adult years, but rather accumulate in worrying ways as the person ages – and it’s not just a heavy workload alone that can cause all these issues, but the things we sacrifice in order to (try to) be more productive, namely, sleep.

Sleep deprivation and its side effects are something that society is only recently beginning to take seriously, and likely still not as seriously as we should be. Sleep deprivation is linked to an alarming variety of overall health issues, both mental and physical, including higher risk of contracting diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and can even result in a shorter lifespan. Anyone familiar with modern western culture probably won’t be surprised that we still aren’t really taking sleep seriously. Issues can begin as early as public school, which tends to start ridiculously early in the morning – kids generally have to be sitting in their desks in the classroom up to 1 to 2 hours before their parents have to be at their desks – and continues on throughout life. Anyone who’s been to college is likely familiar with the cavalier attitude almost every student has towards their sleep schedule when finals week approaches, and even the campus library extends its hours well into the night.

The tragic paradox, of course, is that in our obsession with longer work hours an increased productivity, the sleep that we sacrifice in return is actually causing a loss in the productivity we strive for. Studies show that working on a sleep deficit makes employees angry, anxious, impatient, and distracted. The old adage ‘no man is an island’ is immediately relevant here, as most people work in an office environment, and there’s ample evidence that good relationships and office etiquette are essential for maintaining a smoothly functioning workplace. Even aside from the effects it can have on our social and workplace relationships, studies have shown that as little as sixteen minutes of missed sleep can have a significant impact on workplace productivity the next day.

Scientists and researchers, ever the forward thinkers, have been sounding the alarm about the risks of sleep deprivation for some time now, but workplace culture is predictably slow to catch up, especially given the counter-intuitive nature of the issue: too much focus on work (especially at the cost of sleep quantity and quality) means less productive work. While we wait for our bosses and company owners to come to pragmatic terms with this reality, what can the average employee do?

It can be difficult, especially depending on the culture, to ask for time off work, and some workplace cultures even frown on employees leaving the office at closing time if there are still projects to be finished. On the other hand, improving sleep quality can make a big difference. It can be as simple as finding a good pillow for quality sleep or treating issues like sleep apnea or tinnitus. There are other strategies worth considering as well, such as modifying pre-sleep habits in the bedroom, hiding electronics, avoiding caffeine in the evening, and more. Employees and even managers may not have control over the expectations placed on them and the demands of their workload, but there is always room to improve quality of sleep – and quality of work – starting right at home.

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