Americans are sleeping more but feeling less rested: F.D. Flam

Americans are sleeping more due to remote work, says the American Time Use Survey, but a Gallup poll shows higher stress and poorer sleep quality, with 57% wanting more sleep and 20% getting less than five hours nightly. The pandemic shifted time use but didn’t resolve chronic sleep issues, especially for those in demanding or irregular jobs.

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By F.D. Flam

Americans have started sleeping more than any time in the last 20 years, says a new survey of the way we use time. But wait — a new Gallup poll says we’re more stressed and sleeping less. Can both headlines be right?

A closer look shows that the pandemic precipitated a seismic shift in time use for some of us, but it didn’t change a longstanding national sleep problem. The people with the most grueling, sleep-killing jobs didn’t reap any of the post-pandemic sleep bonus. Others are spending more time in bed, but tossing and turning.

The two surveys measured somewhat different things. The data showing we’re sleeping more comes from the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. It asks a sample of people to catalogue what they do all day.

During the pandemic, that data revealed a vast increase in number of professional and office workers doing their jobs from home. And people who work from home sleep about 30 minutes later in the mornings and get more overall sleep, said Victor Vernon, an economist at SUNY Empire State. The work-from-home trend helped America’s average nightly sleep to increase by 10 minutes between 2019 and 2022. That accelerated a steady rise in sleep times that dates back to 2003.

For those who started working from home during the pandemic, some of the extra sleep time came out of time previously spent on grooming and commuting, which together take a whopping 89 minutes per day on average for people working away from home.

The new Gallup poll questioned people more directly on sleep and stress and showed a sudden change not seen in the other survey — since the pandemic, people have become less satisfied with the quality and quantity of sleep we’re getting. In 2023, 57% of Americans said they’d feel better if they got more sleep, up from 43% who felt that way back in 2013.

And even more worrisome, the number getting less than five hours has increased to 20%, up from about 15% in previous years. (Sleep experts say most of us need at least seven.)

One potential cause: the National Institutes of Health reports that 50 to 70 million people suffer sleep disorders. The most common of those is insomnia, said Renske Lok, a sleep medicine specialist at Stanford University, which is associated with stress and mental health problems. The Gallup data show stress is higher than it’s been in 30 years, with nearly half of respondents saying they experienced frequent stress. Mental health problems have also risen since 2020.

Perhaps part of the shift can be found in other time-use changes associated with Covid. People also started spending more time in front of screens, for example, which can interrupt sleep if used too close to bedtime. And more time spent alone could contribute to mental health challenges like stress and depression that can interrupt sleep.

Mathias Basner, a sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said increased use of fitness trackers is also making people aware of sleep problems they never knew they had. That’s causing some to fall into a vicious sleeplessness cycle.

Worrying about getting too little sleep can set up a feedback loop, said Stanford’s Lok. “The second you can’t fall asleep, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I really want to fall asleep, but I can’t fall asleep,’” she said. It’s something many of us have experienced the night before a big presentation or competition. When it happens a lot, Basner says, specialists call it “orthosomnia.”

But work, Basner said, is still the biggest imposition on our sleep. People need a certain amount of time to relax and unwind in different ways, so pushing extra hours on employees comes out of their sleep time.

Shift work often forces people to try to defy their bodies’ natural sleep cycles. Our sleep cycles depend not just on how long we’ve been up, but also on the time of day, said Lok. For most people, night shifts, rotating shifts or unpredictable shifts are incompatible with the human circadian rhythm.

According to a new study published in PLOS One, working outside the usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. pattern takes a long-term toll on people’s mental and physical health. The study used data on health, sleep and work patterns for 7,000 people born in the 1960s, starting when they were 22 and spanning the next 30 years. Those who spent the most time on night shifts or “volatile” shifts were the most likely to report a deterioration in their mental and physical health by the time they turned 50.

It’s hard for people with rotating or unpredictable shifts to get enough sleep quantity or quality, said study’s lead author, Wen-Jui Han, a professor at the NYU Silver School of Social Work. Those same people often had low paying jobs with few benefits — and the health toll of those factors couldn’t be untangled. These are truckers, cashiers, and various blue-collar workers propping up our 24-hour economy. They haven’t gotten any sleep bonus from the work at home trend — though they’re the ones who need additional Z’s the most.

Scientists are happy that people are taking the dangers of sleep deprivation seriously — but say we shouldn’t take it so seriously that we lose any sleep over it. 

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