Tired Workers Cost America Billions Annually. Why Are We So Tired?
America is a place where people strive. Our founding fathers, catastrophically flawed as they were, strove to build a nation that was better than the one they’d left behind. Every subsequent generation has solidified this country as a place where we earn our keep and contribute to the whole.
There was an inflection point, though, which is far behind us now in the rearview mirror, where all this striving began to deliver diminishing returns. We Americans are, maybe rightly, proud of our work ethic. But by any objective measurement, we have allowed ourselves to become some of the most overworked people in the world.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Economic Policy Institute and the National Sleep Foundation all stand in agreement on this. Together, they report:
- One-third of Americans put in 45 hours at work per week. Another 9.7 million put in more than 60. Meanwhile, the average European workday is one full hour shorter than the American workday.
- Americans work 7.8 percent more hours than they did in 1979.
- Working Americans get less sleep than we did in the 1940s — an average of six and a half hours per night.
- Some 49 million young Americans report concentration problems as a result of a lack of sleep.
Do any of us feel good inside when we refer to the American dream as a “rat race?” And do we feel any better when we use less animalistic terminology like “the grind” or “the hustle?” There’s value in working hard for our rewards. But it’s something else entirely to suggest anybody should be abusing their bodies and minds, every day, for more and more hours per day, for fewer and fewer rewards.
As a result of three-quarters of Americans arriving at the workplace tired each day, our economy loses an estimated $411 billion every year due to lost productivity. Is that a compelling enough call to action for the proud capitalists? Maybe more of us could pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if we weren’t too tired to find the laces.
What Does Science Say About Work and Sleep?
The CDC finds a full third of Americans are regularly sleep-deprived.
There’s no “correct” amount of sleep for each person. Most adults need about seven hours for optimal functioning. Students need about nine. But no matter how old we are, research proves that sleeping well at night has a direct link with our ability to remain productive during the day. Chronically sleep-deprived people are more susceptible to a broad variety of health problems that include weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.
All of this is publicly available information. And yet most residents of the U.S. either don’t know or don’t care that we work about 20 more hours per year than the average. That’s more than any other developed economy in the world.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Technology has made us more productive as a species than at any previous point in our history. Why are the citizens of the “most advanced economy in the world” working longer hours than they did in the ’70s and sleeping less than they did in the ’40s?
Why Do Americans Work So Hard?
The proximate cause of America’s toxic relationship with sleep and work is that we’ve let our workers’ rights and our social contract wither away to practically nothing. American workers aren’t guaranteed paid time off for national holidays, for voting, for illnesses, to spend time with our newborn children or just to take a vacation. We’ve even been making up excuses not to pay millions of employees for overtime until, quite literally, the last couple of years.
Americans have watched their wages stagnate for the last several decades, too, even while the cost of virtually every necessity has soared. You’d have to earn more than $23 per hour today to enjoy the same purchasing power as somebody taking home $4 per hour back in the late ’70s. Meanwhile, the average home price is 194 percent higher than in the ’80s.
And then there’s renting. In most of America, workers have to hold down two and a half minimum-wage jobs to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
So let’s ask again: Why do Americans work so hard and get so little sleep? Because a shocking number of us must, just to survive.
Back to the Grind
An experiment in Sweden deduced a six-hour workday resulted in higher productivity than an eight-hour one. Many other studies reveal actual economic productivity begins to decline markedly beyond the 40-hour mark. German workers put in fewer hours than the residents of any other developed economy — and yet they’re 27 percent more productive than workers in the UK.
As we’ve seen, the biggest threat to our sleep — and our economic productivity — is the thresher of relentless capitalism. We’re letting Republicans and some Democrats destroy workers’ rights and chip away at the social safety net. And after all that, we’re letting employers reduce workers’ hours from 40 to 39, so they don’t have to provide health care. Add that to the neverending list of ever-more-expensive basic needs Americans must juggle, in addition to dealing with unpaid overtime, the demands of raising a family and attempts at assembling a social life. It’s little wonder our national pastime is “Netflix and chilling.”
The other part of the problem is cultural. Americans have collectively allowed themselves to conclude downtime is sinful, and time away from the hustle of professional life is something to look down upon or be embarrassed about.
The realities of the apparently zero-sum American economy conspire to keep Americans in bondage to their unmet needs. We work and we work and we work. And when the second or third jobs still aren’t enough — 20 percent of American teachers hold down a second job to make ends meet! — we turn to the safety net, which has never been in greater danger than it is today.
This economy is a house of cards. And we seem to be sleepwalking our way through its collapse.