America’s Sleep Culture is Broken — and What We Can Do About It

Ryan Bohl
Ryan Bohl
Apr 16 · 4 min read

We need to change our work culture’s hero-worshipping of ‘early to rise’

1 in 3 Americans don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep causes a myriad of health problems — and yet in the United States, work and education cultures keep rewarding those who pull all-nighters, wake up at the unnatural crack of down, and operate on 4–6 hours of sleep a night.

In education, schools are scheduled so early they impact student development. In work, employers sing the praises of those who start the day first. At parties, friends will talk about how little sleep they’re getting as a mark of resilience and value, while our entrepreneurs sell us how-to guides to maximize our sleep value by engaging in bizarre nocturnal rituals so we can work even more.

Certainly, in a world in which productivity is measured less and less by actually making physical things and more and more by creating value, the manageable measure of who is sleeping the least is a simple way to gauge who is working “hardest” — and is consequently the most valuable. As your co-worker strides in ten minutes after you, surely you occasionally feel a flutter of pride knowing you got there first. And as a student, doubtless, you rolled up to school bleary-eyed but feeling accomplished for having stayed up well past your normal bedtime completing some project or studying for a test.

These points of pride are reinforced by managers and business leaders who praise late nights, early mornings, and short stints asleep. Yet employees enable this just as readily: many will jostle one another on Gchat well after hours to touch base on a project, while shared docs give employees a reason to stay on later so their cursor can be seen moving and their colleagues can feel like everyone is working equally “hard” by giving up precious nighttime hours.

There’s no war, no great shortage that we must all be putting in extra hours to overcome. But we let ourselves do this anyway. And yet, even as we do, we have in our possession a means to take back the culture of sleep.

Here’s how.

Talk to your fellow employees or students

There are a few people out there who can naturally do 4–5 hour nights and who do work best at the crack of dawn. That’s not most of us. If you’re sleep deprived, odds are good so are the other people you work or school with. Having that common understanding that it’s not okay will allow you to start to break that employee/student enabled culture of sleep deprivation.

That means instead of praising someone for working late into the night, remind them that the task they’re on is likely not worth the cost to their health or family. Rarely do work or school situations require late-night crams; saying it out loud can re-normalize that it’s important to go to bed.

Advocate for reasonable start times

Depending on your age, your brain functions best at different times of day. For many, it’s mid-morning: that sweet spot of 9–12, before the afternoon lull but after the breakfast wake up. If your organization is pushing for work to start earlier than that, talk to your fellow employees about pushing back. There are few organizations out there that do work that requires such an early start.

And if your managers retort with insinuations that you’re just lazy, bombard them with all the relevant health data about why they’re wrong. And check your work contract: if the hours aren’t explicit, your employer has less of a leg to stand on, and you can talk to HR or even a labor attorney about advocating for your rights.

Give yourself a break

If you’re tired, it’s not because you’re a lazy, weak person, though that is often how our sleep culture makes it out. It’s because you’re a sack of fluid and meat that requires specific conditions to thrive. You wouldn’t blame yourself for catching a cold in an office that insisted on keeping the temperature below 60 because some frigid-obsessed manager wanted to “toughen you up” — you’d rightly demand someone turn up the thermostat. You shouldn’t blame yourself if your employer is making you sick by stealing critical sleep time from you as well.

Sleep is a critical part of our lives. The sooner we get back to basics on it, the better off we’ll be — and the sooner we might win just one more important battle in the struggle for a reasonable work-life balance.

Ryan Bohl

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Ryan Bohl

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