The Economics of Sleep Deprivation
When a basic human need becomes a social marker
There’s no greater mark of privilege these days than how many hours of shut-eye you’re able to get. Many of us go through life as zombies but exhorting the exhausted masses to just sleep more is as simplistic as it is tone-deaf. Like working all the time or commuting for hours every day, sleep deprivation isn’t a lifestyle choice.
In Seattle where I lived between 2013 and 2017, many households are being priced out of the city as tech giants keep driving rents up. While a $300 monthly rent increase may be no big deal to anyone making six figures, someone on minimum hourly wage in the service industry has no choice but to move out to the suburbs. And then spend hours in mass transit or stuck on the freeway to get to work just so they can hold down a job. Something has to give, and that something isn’t just family and social life but rest.
Sleep is becoming the ultimate status symbol.
Not that salaried people always fare better in America. You can be employed by corporate on a 40-hour week contract and when business needs require you to spend longer at work, you have to. If your company has decided that overtime does not apply to salaried people, you get no extra compensation, be it monetary or time off in lieu. Whenever there are staff shortages, you make up for the shortfall with your presence, often sacrificing your weekends otherwise you stand to be out of a job.
While this is unthinkable in the EU where we have strong labor laws, strong trade unions, and universal health care, American capitalism works people like cattle. Not only is health regarded as a benefit rather than a basic human right in the US but no one is shocked at people working more than one job. What’s more, folks who juggle several jobs are unlikely to have health insurance.
“Your busyness isn’t a badge of honor,” is a phrase often bandied around by those who hail sleep as the cure-all for most of modern life’s ills.
To them, getting more sleep is as simple as a self-imposed digital curfew, adopting a bedtime routine, and generally making sleep a priority.
It sounds easy to do but these are the solutions of people insulated by privilege who have little to no idea how many of us live. When you are self-employed, working several jobs, or commuting for hours every day, sleep isn’t your priority.
Paying the bills and feeding your family is.
If you’re a cash-strapped freelancer like me, time is the only resource you have and it’s not unusual to maximize it to try and increase your income. In an economy where staff jobs are rarer and gigs are increasingly common, freelancers seldom turn down work. “Make hay while the sun shines” is a habit many of us share because our income is never guaranteed and can vary wildly from one month to the next.
Freelance earnings tend to be commensurate with effort, perseverance, and dedication. This is where I’ve been at for the past 14 months or so, rebuilding a life word by word, out loud and in public.
And right now, the product is tired.
Time is my only currency.
For background, major depressive disorder stole my writing voice and livelihood for five years and I’ve been living out a suitcase in transit between the US and several EU cities since December 2018 so I could help my parents navigate the harrowing reality of stage 4 cancer.
In practice, this means that whatever my family needs or feels like doing always comes first. I fit my work around them and am no stranger to pulling all-nighters to catch up; if I don’t write, I can’t support myself. Because chemotherapy is exhausting, we spend a lot of time at home but I’m not always chained to my laptop when my parents are awake. We chat a lot, we have a leisurely family dinner every night, and we watch the occasional movie together.
In short, we put family life first and enjoy one another’s company while we still can because we no longer have the luxury of time. But all those activities mean I end up with less time I can monetize so I have to make up for it somehow. As a result, I sleep little and look like a permanently surprised panda.
However, love and vocation drive me and both have kept going so far despite permanent exhaustion but only thanks to the steadfast support and encouragement of fellow humans. They have been holding me together with infinite kindness and patience for months, offering me a safe space to escape to and regroup until I can establish set geographical coordinates in the Netherlands.
In the midst of extreme hardship, I am uncommonly lucky; a hand to hold and a listening ear at the ready have been key to avoiding total collapse on many, many occasions, the latest of which only 48 hours ago. Unpredictability is a constant and I’ve learned to roll with the punches, iterate, adapt, and push forward regardless of circumstances.
For added fun, I’m setting up a side business based on long-term collaborations. But because I can’t let that work affect my fragile and modest bottom line, the time I spend on it is time I don’t spend on the work that pays the bills. Sacrificing current sleep is an investment into a better future, assuming my health holds out a little longer and I eventually get there.
No wonder stress has become endemic.
When you’re consumed with worry about how to make ends meet and working every available hour, it eventually messes with your mind. You either pass out when your head hits the pillow or you end up in the throes of rampant insomnia doing battle with a mind that refuses to switch off.
Either way, chances are you can no longer recall what it feels like to wake up refreshed. Sleep deprivation can affect your metabolism too and lead to poor dietary choices, loss of appetite, or a body that rejects whatever you feed it. This is how mine retaliates against stress, healthful diet notwithstanding.
But how many people are amped up on stimulants and sugar just so they can keep going? How many survive on junk food because they don’t have the headspace or time to look for or prepare anything else? When food is the only comfort you can afford, self-gratification becomes a pattern that’s hard to break, cue obesity and diabetes.
And forget about exercise. When you don’t have time to sleep, you don’t have time for sports and you’re way too tired to get moving anyway. For added fun, try cycling when you’re so exhausted you can’t even stand upright anymore; I did and my legs have been covered in bruises for days. I wasn’t even trying to work out; biking is how we move around in the Netherlands.
This never-ending race for survival is killing us slowly. When you lose the ability to rest, your brain suffers and withers. Cognitive impairment can put your life at risk and you could also drop dead from overwork, a phenomenon known as “karōshi” in Japan.
As long as paying people a living wage isn’t a priority, as long as the gig economy keeps selling unattainable dreams of financial freedom one souped-up inspirational listicle at a time, as long as education remains the preserve of those who can either afford it or are willing to go into debt for life, sleep inequalities will persist.
And as long as labor laws put profit ahead of people, Americans will remain exhausted. A healthy worker is a worker who can be and do their best; tired workers, meanwhile, help prop up entire industries dedicated to productivity hacks and running on empty.
Lack of sleep may be killing us slowly but there’s no denying it’s excellent business.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.