Building shield

Last month, the Deep End featured a post about sleep – suggesting that politicians and other people in demanding jobs weren’t getting enough of it. However, evidence from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the poorer you are the more likely you are to get less than six hours a night.

Many of the best-paid jobs do involve long working days, but the same is true of some of the worst-paid jobs – especially if you have to do more than one of them just to get by. The issue is explored by Ciara Byrne in a piece for Fast Company:

“Adults… who work multiple jobs—estimated to be around 15% of the American workforce—are 61% more likely than others to report sleeping six hours or less on weekdays. Short sleepers also tend to have longer commutes, work irregular or shift hours, start work earlier, and get home later in the evening than normal sleepers, according to the research. The lower your family income and the lower the level of education you’ve received, the higher your odds are of being a short sleeper.

“In other words, sleep has its own caste system.”

Adequate sleep, however, is not a luxury. It is essential for physical and mental well-being – lack of sleep can therefore exacerbate other forms of inequality and social dysfunction:

“Short sleep duration has been linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, coronary artery disease, and higher levels of mortality in general…

Having less than you need of any resource has been shown to limit long-term planning, increase anxiety, and sap both brainpower and willpower. Poor sleep, for example, increases cravings for high-calorie foods. Shorter sleep has also been associated with poor psychological health.”

On average, the British get more sleep than the Americans, but less than the Germans and Canadians. Reversing the trend toward shorter sleeping times should be part of a long-term strategy for reducing demand on the NHS in the years ahead.

We need to think about the wider impact of changing work patterns. The convenience of a 24-hour service economy comes at a price – with employees having to work irregular and antisocial hours that make normal sleep impossible. For instance, Byrne describes one particular practice, called ‘clopening’, in which workers are rota’d for a late shift followed by an early shift the next morning, e.g. closing and then opening a retail outlet.

On the other hand, some developments are moving in the right direction:

“Self-employed workers achieve significantly more sleep than private-sector employees, and are 17% less likely to be short sleepers. Another recent study also reported that an increase in perceived control over work time was associated with more sleep and lower levels of fatigue and depression symptoms.”

Government should therefore think carefully before intervening in the workplace. Some policy options – such as a blanket ban on zero-hour contracts – might end up reducing the control that people have over the hours they work. Similarly, measures to boost the incomes of low paid workers, such as tax credits, may have the effect of subsidising low-wage business models.

The objective should be to encourage job-creation by companies who make it their business to invest in the well-being of their employees. This will require economically and socially literate policy-making from our politicians, not the crude sloganising that they tend to go in for.

It’s a challenge they might like to sleep on.

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