Troubled sleepers have many options now. Because most sleep medications have been shown to have deleterious health effects, nonpharmacological options have mushroomed: multiple technological devices, hundreds of apps that offer meditation and calming music or stories, and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, either self-taught or taught by sleep specialists and therapists. Rather than just nagging people to get more natural sleep, such options can, I argued, allow for playful exploration of possibilities.
A recent study in the Journal of Community Health, however, showed an alarming trend: the number of working people sleeping less than six hours a night increased from 2010 (30%) to 2018 (35%). In 2014 the CDC deemed sleep deprivation an epidemic at the 30% level, so the increase is worrisome for public health and safety. (Think: sleepy health care providers and truck drivers.)
The increase might mean that the pills, the devices, the informing and nagging, the playful exploration, all of it — is falling short.
Arianna Huffington took up the cultural challenge of addressing sleep deprivation in The Sleep Revolution: “Much of our society is still operating under the collective delusion that sleep is simply time lost to other pursuits” (p. 18). Such a collective delusion suggests that social norms might be holding our beliefs and behaviors in place. Social norms are beliefs or a set of beliefs shared widely by a group as “common sense.” Sanctions and rewards, frequently invisible, govern our compliance to them. Sleep beliefs at workplaces and schools frequently cluster around productivity and success: be “on” 24/7 or lose out.
Sample sanction: “If I find you napping at your desk again, I will report you to HR.”
Sample reward: “Since you’ve worked so hard on reports over the last month (and sacrificed your sleep), you are in line for a promotion. I appreciate your loyalty.”
Who can say at a fast-paced company, “I got 8 hours of sleep last night?” No one forbids adequate sleep, yet no one can celebrate getting it either. Many believe sleep is a waste of time or a sign of laziness. What your peers and associates think and do matters for your own beliefs and behaviors. If the culture you’re in is a sleepless one, you’re likely to be sleepless too.
A key lesson learned from social norm theory: One person alone can’t change a behavior governed by social norms. Buying a new mattress or subscribing to a sleep app might not be enough, especially if you’re feeling pressure to stay up to get work done.
Changing social norms involves bringing out and sharing our own and others’ beliefs in ways that allow us to trace their connections to our behaviors so that they can be analyzed in light of new information about health and well-being. A majority in a community (that serves as one’s reference group) has to embrace a new norm in ways that are visible to others. In other words, we sleep in the context of others’ expectations. That means sleep advocates have to think ecologically, at the level of household, neighborhood, school, church, and workplace.
Here are five ways to begin to think about sleep ecologically:
Your household. What would it take for everyone in your household to get adequate sleep? What kind of dialogue would that require? (See the National Sleep Foundation’s new guidelines.) No matter what the ages of those in your household, sleep deprivation threatens everyone’s wellbeing. How can you map out a plan to shut everything down, turn everything off an hour (some say three) before falling asleep?
Your neighborhood. If you live in a quiet neighborhood, you’re lucky. If not, how can you block outside noise from your living quarters? But more, how could you work with neighbors and neighborhood groups to secure quieter nights for better sleep? [For some neighborhoods it might take policy changes and/or legal actions.]
Your school(s). Ask about your schools’ commitment to adequate sleep. Are personnel aware of the new research on sleep? What actions are school boards, staff, parents, and students taking to increase natural sleep? How might students become advocates?
Your organizations. What about your church, your book group, your sports league? How can you engage members in a dialogue about the new research on the importance of sleep?
Your workplace. Many workplaces are responding to the new research on sleep. Some are providing education but others are taking action, for example, by providing nap areas and/or giving days off for jet lag. How can you engage your workplace in dialogues about changing the culture so that adequate sleep is a priority?
The sleep deprivation/medication problem is daunting. Thinking about social norms doesn’t mean that individual actions are not important, only that they can easily fail without a shared community-wide commitment to adequate natural sleep.