The Perils of Political Naps
Do we really know how to sleep? The perils of political napping demonstrate that sleepy ideas about sleeping remain steadfastly secure.
Recently Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York excoriated one organ of the press, in this case the New York Post, for reporting that he naps during the day.
“Ridiculous,” the mayor steamed.
“Absurd and untrue,” chimed a mayoral press spokesman. Asked if he, too, was a napper, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo declared “I never have been,” as reported by Clyde Haberman.
As much of today’s population falls asleep unknowingly, often while driving, such proclamations sound foolish. Many of us experience a disconnect between how we ought to sleep and how we do.
Is Napping a Crime?
Determining the importance and social usefulness of naps requires context. To pilot a jet or navigate a trainload of passengers while knowingly sleepy worries prosecutors and judges globally. Yet many workers are unaware they are sleepy. The conductor on the Metro North Train who fell asleep, causing the accident that killed four, was not aware he had sleep apnea. Train conductors in Sweden have been found to fall asleep on the job with eyes open, making passengers believe they are awake. Half of people put into stage one sleep for 10 minutes thought themselves alert the entire time.
Yet many of us are very aware we are sleepy on the job. The question is what we can do about it.
The Way We Sleep (Don’t Sleep) Now
Many companies, large and small, will fire you for falling asleep on the job. Yet few have procedures that allow people to sleep at night.
On the contrary.
Increasingly work is a 24/7 procedure. So is leisure.
Silicon Valley is often cited as a vanguard of the American economy. Lots of IT workers are given impossible deadlines. Perhaps today’s favorite business icon, Steve Jobs, was famous for demanding that limits of human performance become suspended. To beat a competitor to market you may be told to “work night and day.”
Much of the rest of industry follows Silicon Valley practice. Today it’s normal for bosses to text or tweet in the middle of the night. Underlings must respond. They get less sleep, and what is often worse, more interrupted sleep. Yet corporate policies on napping on the job have not changed with the changing work “day.”
Enforced sleeplessness is also common for those working part-time jobs. Lots of companies don’t want to pay benefits. Many don’t care their part-time workers possess other jobs. They change work schedules at the last minute, and work them day and night. Add in commute time, and people must run round the clock. Blowing out biological clocks and sleeping too little helps increase their girth, their love of junk foods, and their tendency to depression. Thanks to the particular forms of American labor law, they often perform their tasks lacking health insurance. The tab gets picked up by their families, their communities, and ultimately the public purse. When it comes to human health, there are no “free lunches.”
Commuting also kills our “standard” form of sleep. Housing prices have leapt in many of the cities which propel the most dynamic parts of the economy. To make it economically, people live further and further away. They often get up at two or three in the morning to start work at seven. They are shift workers, but are not counted that way in official statistics.
If our future lies in our youth, sleeplessness will become an American way of life. In order to learn well and be healthy, kids generally need nine to nine and a half hours of sleep. Many get less than seven hours. Social media and video games are considered more entertaining than “useless” slumber, while early school schedules also cut needed rest time.
Now students sleep or stare half awake throughout large portions of the school day. Some drug themselves with anti-rest “energy drinks” to stay awake, not recognizing how this wrecks night-time sleep.
People sleep in. Billions of folks go to bed later and get up later. This creates “social jet lag,” another common phenomenon of modern life. That’s why Monday morning is the peak time of death in the U.S. The clocks are out of synch. So are you.
Death of the “Lie Down and Die” Model
Sleep was probably simpler in the 1950s and 1960s, when people slept perhaps an hour and half longer than today. You could watch night-time television, but programming was sparse. Telephones might wake you with emergencies, but most did not ring till morning. It was not socially acceptable to wake workers in the early morning.
Today it is. Not only acceptable, but increasingly routine. The American “Lie Down and Die” model of sleep itself is dying. With it dies the promise that after seven or more hours of uninterrupted slumber, we will wake and be alert enough to perform well throughout the day.
A Way Forward
If sleeplessness and interrupted sleep are the new normal, we need to adapt. One way is to allow naps, especially programmed naps.
Schools allow this more and more. So does Silicon Valley. Elective naps can be short. Some folks feel better after 6-10 minutes. Short naps of less than 45 minutes usually do not produce unhappy sleep inertia, and may not wreck night-time sleep.
But naps only get you so far. Kids who naps may learn better during the school afternoon, but they usually remain sleep deprived. And most of the public still doesn’t know what body clocks do to their health and performance.
So its time for much of the country to go on a diet — an electronic diet. It’s not okay to wake friends and employees in the middle of the night unless there’s a really good reason. And that rarely includes a new social media text or photo.
Plus one really should pay attention to timing, for time rules life. People are meant to sleep at night, not in the day. If they do sleep in the day, naps are usually most efficient between about noon and 4 p.m.
There are no overarching norms of “normal” sleep. Normality changes from culture to culture. But old American sleep norms are punishing us — individually and as a community.
It’s time to give sleep a chance.