Imagine having to make a huge decision that may affect the lives of millions. Your constituents have voted with confidence in your ability represent them on issues like health care and education.
But after months of contentious debate, when the deadline nears, it comes time to make the critical decisions, there's nothing left to do but pull numerous all-nighters, eat poorly, and struggle to stay awake while you and your colleagues fight for a resolution.
Sound like a group project in college or business school? No wait - it is actually the State Senate!
This is what's been happening in states like California where budgets are running in the red and constitutional rules have forced legislators to lock themselves in the statehouse to get bills passed. California lawmakers have pulled at least six all-nighters so far this year.
On some of these nights, the atmosphere is more like a slumber party than a political arena, as some politicians sneak in a snore-laden snooze while others play solitaire, sing, or Twitter to the outside world. Activities that may help them stay awake during discussion or debate, but might not help them focus as much as they would like on the task at hand.
Crazy? I think so. No good decision can be made by anyone operating on so much sleep deprivation, especially when it's not just one or two people here. We're talking about an entire assembly of lawmakers trying to do their job and make an impact on the health and welfare of all of us - the folks that elected them - to keep us safe and make sound decisions about our future. That's right: we trust them to make decisions about the health and welfare of others even though when it comes to their own sleep, they don't always make the best health decisions. A real case of "do as I say, not as I do."
We know this about sleep deprivation: there are real physiological and psychological effects as we deprive our bodies of a basic physical need. Our judgment isn't always the best. We know that we start to make bad food choices - we crave things like doughnuts and cookies - choices we might not make when well rested and energized. We do things like "go all in" at 3 a.m., a choice we might not make earlier in the evening. Our reaction time slows, our memory decreases, our bodies and minds slow down in an effort to preserve the energy we have left.
Here's what I see going on as a result of all that sleepiness:
• Bad moods fueling endless, pointless debates among cantankerous colleagues.
• An inability to think clearly and rationally.
• Abuse of caffeine, Visine, and junk food.
• Sporadic snoozing, leaving many missing out on important conversations that are necessary for arriving at effective decisions.
How's that for inspiring confidence in effective lawmaking? I've always been a big fan of napping, but falling fast asleep on the carpet of your Capitol building's floor just doesn't cut it.
Rest up, lawmakers. We've all got a lot of expectations resting on the political agenda these days. One way to ensure you arrive at good decisions is to get a good night's sleep. Every day of the year. Both in and out of the political forums.
Put sleep at the top of your personal healthcare reform agenda. Stop growing your personal sleep debt - we're counting on you to be at the top of your game. You can't be there when you're falling asleep on the job.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep DoctorTM