Moms

It's time to turn off everything and go back to sleep

We all know that not getting enough shut-eye can cause all sorts of health and behavioral problems, but we're pushing back bedtime to get in more work

It's midnight and Carolyn Donaldson is clacking away on her keyboard. Although she's yawning, it might be another hour before Donaldson's head hits the pillow. Of course, that's if she forces herself to go to sleep before 2 a.m.

Meanwhile, Donaldson is zipping off e-mails to members of one of the three nonprofit boards she sits on. She's coming up with new marketing strategies for her son's fitness business, and she's working on projects for her own consulting clients. With only 24 hours in a day, she's willing to give up sleep to get more done.

And so it goes with American workers today. We push our bedtime back to fit in extra work. We get up early for a jump-start on the competition. Our disrespect for sleep has become a national epidemic, and many of us have forgotten the feeling of being rested.

"People look at sleep as expendable," says psychologist Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and author of Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How To Combine Work and Family. "But there are other solutions."

In a Working Mother survey, a stunning 77 percent of mothers said they don't get the shut-eye they need. A survey by Men's Health shows that men aren't doing much better. Indeed, 62 percent said they manage on less than seven hours of sleep a night.

By now, most of us know that too few ZZZs can cause a host of problems, from being unable to focus at work to being susceptible to illness, moodiness, depression and even injury. It can elevate our cortisol levels, which can put a spare tire around our waists, thin our skin and cause wrinkles.

But we're willing to take the risk to cross one more item off our to-do lists. The result is that Americans are tired at work. A recent study by the National Sleep Foundation found that the average worker spends 9 1/2 hours a day at the workplace, topped off by another several hours of work from home, decreasing total sleep time during the week. By 3 p.m., most workers hit an afternoon slump.

In her research, Halpern discovered that women who made it to the top of their organization repeatedly took time from sleep, losing about one hour a night compared with women who didn't have caregiving and high-powered work responsibilities.

For some of us, it is justifiable to blame technology for our sleep deficit. Did you know that 28 percent of iPhone users check or update Twitter before getting out of bed? And just imagine what lies ahead for the next generation: Pew Research found that more than 8 in 10 millennials sleep with a cellphone glowing by the bed, poised to dispatch texts, phone calls, e-mails and videos.

Of course, not every individual needs the same amount of sleep, and not all sleep deprivation is by choice. Adults typically need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, or "enough to feel awake, aware and rested throughout the day," according to Dr. Matthew Edlund, author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough. Edlund believes that rest is as important as sleep. "People need to alternate physical activity with mental activity. Sometimes getting out of the office and walking will restore you."

Napping may be one solution. But rather than trying to catch up on sleep, experts advise better managing your time and changing your habits. Alternatives are to work more productively, set one priority per day, learn how to wind down earlier at night and squeeze rest time into the workday.

"Today, the demands on people are overwhelming," says Judith Casey, director of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College. "There's an endless amount of things you can be doing. You have to realize you can't do everything. You need to sleep."

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal Llc., a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com, or read her columns and blogs at worklifebalancingact.com.

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