Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Dangers of “Sleep Machismo” Culture

You should sleep well when you're alive, not when you're dead.

“You can sleep when you're dead” is a common phrase I heard while I was in medical school and residency; it's also common among athletes in the outdoors. I personally love to sleep, and thus this phrase has always made me uncomfortable. I want to have a good night's sleep so I feel refreshed and energized the next day. A lack of sleep does not do me any good. In fact, most people in my life know that if I am constantly woken up throughout the night or in the early morning, I am beyond upset. In my view, sleep is precious—and without restorative sleep, I find it difficult to function at my best. I become irritable, I catch myself making mistakes at work, I have headaches, and my reaction times are slower than usual.

Sleep is Necessary for Our Minds and Bodies

Sleep is a necessary restorative process for our minds and bodies—and no matter how busy we are, we need sleep. While we sleep, our brains catalog information and heal our bodies. The sleeping brain decides what’s important to hold onto, and what can be let go of. Our brains create new pathways that help us navigate the day ahead

Lack of sleep is unhealthy and should not be something we boast about. Lack of sleep can contribute to depression, anxiety, poor health, poor judgment, motor vehicle accidents, and poor work performance

In the United States, the average American sleeps less than the minimum seven hours of sleep per night recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, and nearly half of Americans report negative consequences from insufficient sleep.

The Dangers of "Sleep Machismo"

We live in a competitive, masculine society in which sleep is often deemed for the weak. President Donald Trump, for example, has boasted about getting less than four hours of sleep per night and regularly derogates President-elect Joe Biden as "Sleepy Joe."

But the notion that getting less than the recommended amount of sleep signals something positive about an individual is a cultural misstatement. The term “sleep machismo” refers to those who sleep less and so are deemed stronger and more masculine than those who obtain an adequate amount of rest each night. As if our society is not competitive enough, must we now compete against each other in regard to lack of sleep?

The culture of “sleep machismo” normalizes and even glorifies sleep deprivation as a sign of mental strength, ambition, and dedication. Many people are so chronically sleep-deprived that they do not recognize the signs of deprivation and even come to mistake these as being normal.

It is not uncommon to have a boss who barely sleeps and shames their employees for sticking to a healthy sleep routine. Phrases such as “maybe you should have woken up earlier or stayed later at the office” are commonly heard in many workplaces. This is not only detrimental to our physical and mental health but is a form of bullying. Shaming others because they value sleep is dangerous.

Signs that sleep problems are impacting your mental health and ability to function:

  • Needing an alarm to wake up in the morning.
  • Trouble waking up or getting out of bed.
  • Feeling tired throughout the day.
  • Needing energy drinks, caffeine, or other stimulants to keep you awake.
  • Having trouble concentrating, focusing, and thinking clearly.
  • Having trouble with your memory.
  • Becoming easily irritable, stressed, or overwhelmed.
  • Feeling moody or emotionally reactive.
  • Hitting a “wall” in the afternoon and becoming very tired.
  • Feeling sleepy or falling asleep when sitting or doing a quiet activity.
  • Making less healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Relying on sedatives, alcohol, or sleep aids to get to sleep.
  • Being more impatient or impulsive.
  • Making more mistakes or not catching simple errors.
  • Finding it hard to communicate and feel connected to others.
  • Having no motivation to do things you normally enjoy.
  • Feeling more anxious, restless, and unable to relax.
  • Frequently waking up during the night.
  • Frequently struggling to fall asleep.
  • Racing, anxious thoughts when trying to sleep.

Just because an individual enjoys sleep or requires the recommended amount of sleep each night in order to function does not make them lazy or weak. Many Americans perceive sleep as an expendable luxury, rather than a biological necessity. Day after day, week after week, they choose to defer bedtime in the interests of a favorite TV show, reading one more chapter in a book, responding to one more e-mail, or catching up on social media. All the while, we are accumulating sleep debt—a debt that, like financial debt, incurs steep penalties. No amount of caffeine can fix one's sleep debt.

6 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

  1. Eliminate nighttime stimuli.
  2. Create a sleep-friendly environment.
  3. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  4. Adopt an energizing morning routine.
  5. Adopt a regular sleep routine.
  6. Use your bedroom only for sleep.

It's time we celebrated healthy sleep patterns, instead of shaming each other for sleeping 8 hours a night or competing with each other over who slept least. We need to encourage friends, family members, and co-workers to adopt a healthy sleep schedule. If we are in leadership positions, we need to set a healthy example and encourage employees to take care of their mental and physical health by sleeping. A culture of “sleep machismo” is dangerous and it’s time we start encouraging each other to sleep more rather than skipping out on our essential rest.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Freeman Studio/Shutterstock

More from Kristen Fuller, M.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Kristen Fuller, M.D.
More from Psychology Today