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Dangerously Sleepy

Dangerously Sleepy explores the fraught relations between overwork, sleep deprivation, and public health. Health and labor historian Alan Derickson charts the cultural and political forces behind the overvaluation—and masculinization—of wakefulness in the United States.

Dangerously Sleepy
Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness

Alan Derickson

2013 | 240 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Sleep Is for Sissies: Elite Males as Paragons of Wakefulness
Chapter 2. In a Drowsy State: The Underregulation of Overwork
Chapter 3. The Long Turn: Steelworkers and Shift Rotation
Chapter 4. Asleep and Awake at the Same Time: Pullman Porters on Call
Chapter 5. Six Days on the Road: Long-Haul Truckers Fighting Drowsiness
Conclusion. The Employers' Dreams


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


One thing is absolutely certain in America: the quality and quantity of sleep obtained is substantially less than the quality and quantity that are needed. Over the past century, we have reduced our average nightly total sleep time by more than 20 percent. Today, cultural and economic forces combine to create a 24-hour society in which millions of Americans—either chronically or intermittently—obtain insufficient sleep as a result of workplace and lifestyle determinants. A convincing body of scientific evidence and witness testimony indicates that many Americans are severely sleep deprived and, therefore, dangerously sleepy.
—National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, 1993
American society harbored many dangerously sleepy people long before the landmark report of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research. This book explores the making of a restless nation by concentrating on the fraught historical relationship between sleep and work—the two biggest time commitments of most adults throughout the modern era. Indeed, America's well-known pattern of overwork sets it apart from all other advanced, affluent societies. While employees in other prosperous nations saw their working time decline in the late twentieth century, the average worker in the United States saw his or her time on the job increase by over 160 hours per year. This trend reduced the time left for sleeping and other forms of rest. In the 1990s, 24 percent of American workers slept six hours or less a day. By 2007, 30 percent of the workforce fell into that short-sleep category, with employees in the manufacturing and transportation sectors exceeding the overall average. Almost half the nation's night-shift workers get by on a sleep allowance of six hours or less. This book seeks to uncover some of the damage inflicted by inadequate recuperative rest due to working time.

The sheer duration of time at work is one of two critical temporal factors in workers' sleep loss. The arrangement of time also takes a toll. The spread of nonstandard work schedules—night work, rotating shifts, split shifts, weekend assignments, and other disruptive arrangements—has had a powerful impact on the quality and quantity of unconscious rest. The acceleration of globalization and the growth of a 24/7 economy in the twentieth century have put more Americans to work at all times of the day and week. At present, about one in five full-time employees juggles working, sleeping, and other activities under one of many alternatives to the customary, but ever-less-standard, daytime weekday schedule. The balancing act for several million members of the workforce involves holding more than one job. In addition, a growing number of workers have contingent employment in consulting, contracting, or other temporary placements more likely to involve unpredictable and demanding nonstandard hours. This book digs up many of the roots of these diverse plans and makes clear that their deleterious effects have been present and, to a limited degree, evident from the outset.

Focusing on work-induced sleep loss illuminates a fundamental cultural influence that has operated to extend wakefulness excessively, particularly among men. Wakefulness as a measure of masculinity is a facet of the history of gender in America that has received no attention at all. Recent gender studies have pursued many facets of male experience and identity, often fixing on dramatic expressions such as extreme muscularity and myriad forms of aggression. But mundane manly stamina, as displayed by persevering through long days or nights on the job, has thus far gained little notice. Fulfilling the familiar male breadwinner role entailed a daily dedication to struggle to maintain consciousness as a basic test of strength. For many American men, winning bread meant losing sleep.

Men erected standards of sleepless commitment to work that they have often found difficult to meet. But it appears that the difficulties have been much steeper for a sizable share of the women who have entered the paid workforce in large numbers since the mid-twentieth century. Although male customs and values of overwork and wakefulness presumed little or no responsibility for household maintenance, employers and domestic partners have seldom made accommodations for employed women's second shift of tasks at home. Employed mothers, along with other women workers, continue to face a predicament set up long ago by men functioning under the very different circumstances of the breadwinner-homemaker model. Commenting on the spread of extreme jobs, Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, observed, "If an older generation of working mothers had difficulty coping with fifty-hour workweeks, surely their younger peers are having an even more difficult time managing sixty-plus-hour workweeks along with a slew of additional performance pressures." Unreasonable expectations about their ability to forego sleep indefinitely have served to reinforce barriers to opportunity for many women. Although this study focuses on men's overwork, it does aim to help place the plight of working women in contemporary America in historical context. Work-and-family scholar Joan Williams recently argued that her colleagues should be "focusing attention not on women's differences but on the masculine norms that make those differences seem so important." Noting that "workplaces are gender factories where men forge and enact their masculinity," Williams pointed specifically to norms of overwork and sleep deprivation widely promoted as ideals of manliness.

This book contributes to our understanding of American history in two significant ways. First, it expands the horizons of historical scholarship on the impact of work on health. The literature on occupational safety and health in the United States up to this point has centered on toxins like lead, asbestos, and silica, as well as on other hazards like radiation and threats of traumatic injury, which tend to be confined to the workplace proper. This project builds on recent work on less strictly occupational risks like fatigue and work-related tuberculosis. My purpose is to introduce temporal terms of employment like scheduling and cumulative hours spent on the job into the discussion of the history of workers' health, expanding the domain beyond the hazardous conditions caused by chemical, physical, and biological agents of disease. Second, this is the first full-length study to make the history of sleep and wakefulness practices in America its principal subject. Thus far, only a handful of works have delved into any aspect of the history of unconscious rest. Admittedly, my foray into an expanse of virtually unexplored territory has severe limitations. I seek only to illuminate the sleep practices related to a few kinds of male-dominated work that exhibited exceptional levels of sleep deprivation: the result is neither comprehensive nor representative.

More than mere inconvenience or minor discomfort is at stake here. Workers forced to do without enough sleep over an extended period of time disproportionately suffer serious ill effects, some of which were unrecognized or vastly underrecognized until quite recently. The vulnerability of the drowsy or unconscious worker to accidents on the job or on the way home stands out as the best-understood risk. Overextended employees with diminished vigilance and sluggish reactions incur traumatic injuries at an elevated rate. Leading sleep scientist David Dinges concluded that "fatigue has contributed to serious incidents and accidents in industrial operations, nuclear power plants, and in virtually all modes of transportation. . . . Many of these accidents involved human errors by personnel who often had inadequate sleep and/or were working the night shift." Such catastrophic events as the Three Mile Island accident and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez have demonstrated the potential for disaster when employees attempt to function while deprived of sleep.

Although not as self-evident as the link between somnolence and accidents, the role of sleep loss in producing chronic disease has been established by researchers for numerous disorders. These include ulcers and other gastrointestinal ailments, depression and other psychiatric conditions, heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes and other metabolic disturbances. Some evidence links short sleep to elevated rates of cancer. In addition, biomedical science has demonstrated that existing in a prolonged state of either drowsiness during the daytime or insomnia at night due to nonstandard working time is, in itself, a work-related disease, commonly called shift work sleep disorder. According to the American Sleep Disorders Association, the sleep of shift workers tends to be unrefreshing, largely because it is curtailed by one to four hours per day. The experiential result is commonly a persistent foggy state of consciousness that generates irritability, damaged social relationships, impaired work performance, and an overall reduction in alertness to one's surroundings. Although the prevalence of this condition is not known with any precision, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has estimated that its victims number in the millions. This book attempts to capture some moments of the dawning awareness of this disorder over the course of the past century. This exploratory study primarily aims to suggest that sleep deprivation in the American workforce has constituted a significant health problem for the past century, even though the full breadth and depth of that phenomenon have been and still are quite imperfectly understood.

Public and private authorities in America have denied or minimized the deleterious effects of short sleep and have defined dangerous sleepiness in the narrowest terms. The first section of the book examines the broad cultural and political forces that have shaped values and practices related to sleeplessness. Prominent elite men, especially celebrity entrepreneurs from Thomas Edison to Donald Trump, have aggressively propounded the notion that sleep is not only a waste of valuable time but a sign of unmanly weakness. The evolution of public policy has reflected changing gender roles, with supposedly weak female employees initially meriting the solicitude of the state and then joining their male counterparts in the freedom to work endlessly. Accordingly, regulations setting real limits on hours affect only a very small number of occupations whose practitioners may pose a danger to the general public. Woven together, these cultural and political influences have fostered the general disposition that real men need little sleep, and certainly do not need the government to tuck them into bed.

The second section of Dangerously Sleepy offers case studies of male-dominated occupations plagued by sleep difficulties. These cases of working-class consciousness under duress come from abiding sites of endemic (and in all probability, atypically extreme) deprivation—transportation and manufacturing. Today, over a third of employees in those sectors get less than six hours' sleep a day. At the turn of the twentieth century, steelworkers faced a weekly rotation from a twelve-hour day shift to a twelve-hour night shift, with the wrenching transition of a twenty-four-hour stint called the "long turn." At the same time, Pullman porters toiled up to four hundred hours a month, always at the beck and call of rail passengers. Since the 1920s, most long-haul truckers have faced long and irregular hours on the road, often with no fixed schedule. All three groups found themselves trying to gain respite in inhospitable places, putting up with what I term discommodations. All three dealt with variants of the misery known as flexploitation, as employers demanded not just machine-like regularity of work behavior but, beyond that, a superhuman adaptability. Each group tried in its own way to alleviate onerous terms of employment, adopting strategies that mixed individualism and collectivism, self-reliance and alliance building, accommodation and resistance. The volume concludes by pondering the possibilities for reforms that would promote a more healthful relationship between work and sleep, changes that might grant employees in America the same entitlement to limited working time now bestowed on horses, mules, and oxen in parts of this country, if not the same rights enjoyed by citizens of most other prosperous societies.

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