Student sleeping on desk

I have been a terrible sleeper for most of my adult life. In high school, I stayed up late on ICQ chat and message forums. In college, I joined a fraternity and spent most of my evenings cramming for all the assignments that were due the next day. In grad school, I survived exclusively on coffee and the late night study carrells in Alderman Library. And since pursuing a career as a librarian, I have always burned the candle at both ends as I constantly experimented with new daily schedules to get as much done as possible before passing out with exhaustion (see also: side hustles). I have wasted too many of my waking hours… on waking hours.

In the past year, I’ve started to realize through my own habit-tracking (and a little therapy) the benefits of having a full night’s rest (read: 7.5 hours minimum), which is why reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker has been such a joy. In it, Walker reviews and summarizes numerous sleep studies that collectively present an iron-clad argument for making sleep the most important habit of your health routine.

Whether it’s learning a new skill, improving your memory, lowering your risk of cancer, diabetes, and obesity, or improving your mental health, Walker discusses a seemingly endless number of reasons for enshrining sleep into your 24-hour cycle. Many of these benefits are not surprising (though, the experiments Walker describes certainly are!), but the one section that I want to highlight is Chapter 15: “Sleep and Society,” specifically the part on “Sleep in the Workplace.”

The company cost of sleep deprivation

In academia (and many other areas of knowledge work, I would assume), we do very little to push back on the practice of “the all-nighter.” We accept that losing sleep to finish a project regularly comes with the job. And yet there is every reason to want to make this practice undesirable, especially from a productivity and “value-driven” point of view.

As Walker summarizes, “Under-slept employees are […] less productive, less motivated, less creative, less happy, and lazier. They are also more unethical.” Here are just a few of the studies that he cites:

  • insufficient sleep can cost an organization almost $2000 per employee per year
  • sleep-deprived employees create fewer and less accurate solutions to work-relevant problems [citation]
  • individuals who obtain less sleep select less difficult work tasks to accomplish during the day, delaying progress on high-impact projects [citation]
  • employees who sleep six hours or less are significantly more deviant and likely to lie the following day
  • sleepy employees “social loaf” and choose the more selfish path of least resistance when working in teams [citation]
  • supervisors who get lower quality sleep have poorer self control and are more abusive to employees the next day
  • under-slept managers/leaders are less charismatic

And the most surprising factor for me: “Factoring out many other potential factors and influences (e.g. regional affluence, house prices, cost of living, etc.), [Gibson & Shrader] found that an hour of extra sleep returned significantly higher wages […] in the region of 4 to 5 percent” (p. 303).

Sleep deprivation in higher ed

In higher education, the “life of the mind” is supposed to be paramount: through creativity, innovation, interdisciplinary work, and collaboration, we not only attempt to tackle some of the world’s most wicked problems, but we try to teach students how to do the same. Thus, there is an imperative here for all of us in academia: make it possible for our faculty, staff, and students to get the sleep they need. We need to realistically map out our organization’s goals and expectations in such a way that distributes labor (i.e. the time needed to complete that labor) equitably and in such a manner that allows everyone to obtain adequate sleep (read: 7.5 hours+).

Additionally, we all need to push back on “long shift” boasting. It is not a point of pride to work a 12-hour day: it is a point of failure for the organization. (Note: I don’t put any of the blame on individuals). If it is not possible for faculty and staff to have reasonable work hours, then perhaps the organization should increase staffing or reduce the demands it puts on its employees. In knowledge work sectors that also pride themselves on being a part of “the public good” (see also: schools, colleges, libraries, archives), it can be hard to push back: we’ve been told since grad school that our work is “noble,” and so to suggest that we take time for ourselves, to collectively reduce the scope of our work, can sometimes feel like failure.

When I have this feeling, I will often counter that with the thought: “How can I give my best self to others if I am not the best version of myself?” As organizations dedicated to the public good, how can we settle for anything less than our best selves? And if that reason is not good enough, Walker’s research shows that it’s just good business sense.

Get some sleep. Enable others to do likewise.

(image source: Flickr Commons, Goshen College. Photographs. Library, 1981-82. V-4-11 Box 19 Folder 24. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.)