From work to gender: why sleep is political

Socially weaker segments of the population suffer from very little or poor sleep: “Lower social classes often have problems falling asleep and staying asleep,” sleep doctor Anna Heidbreder (Johannes Kepler University Linz) tells ORF.at. . There are many explanations for this, from shift and rotating work to rocking multiple jobs. “It's mentally challenging, physically challenging and definitely time-consuming,” he says.

For example, a 2019 YouGov survey of the USO showed that people with annual incomes below $30,000 get less sleep than those above. Almost one in four people sleep less than six hours. By comparison: in the group with annual incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, this value shrinks to eleven percent.

Expert warns about consequences of shift work

People in shift and shift work “are at risk for their health after a certain age, but they have to work until they are 60 or 65,” emphasizes Scientific Director of the Postgraduate Course in Sleep Training at Brigitte Holsinger in Meduni Vienna. Interview with ORF.at in this context. The researcher, who has been highly critical of shift work since the age of 55, believes the topic is underrated.

Adults generally recommend seven to nine hours of sleep, however, according to Holzinger, women need less sleep than men. The short-term effects of insufficient sleep are varied: they range from limited activity, concentration and reactions to irritability and gastrointestinal problems. According to Heidbreder, chronic effects include cardiovascular diseases and metabolic diseases, including dementia. “Depression develops more easily, and other mental illnesses are less likely to heal,” says Holsinger.

Women are especially vulnerable to sleep disorders

Insomnia has long been considered a widespread disease: a representative survey by MedUni Vienna in 2018 showed that almost one in two people in this country suffers from the effects of unrefreshing sleep. According to other data, almost one in three suffer from sleep disorders. Women report insomnia and sleep problems more often than men.

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In Austria, this was highlighted by Spectra market research and a survey by Salzburg sleep researcher Manuel Schabus. Various factors such as differences in sleep-wake rhythm and hormonal fluctuations are suspected behind this. In addition, women spend more time in unpaid care work – which also comes at the expense of sleep.

In recent years, intensive research has been conducted on aspects of the “gender sleep gap”: According to a survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, women (31 percent) are more likely to report insomnia than men (17 percent).

Researchers at the University of Warwick in England used data from Germany to find that women suffer from sleep disorders more often than men after childbirth. A recent British study on different working patterns (such as shift work or weekend work) and sleep concluded that the association between long working hours and short sleep was stronger in women.

The racial dimension of sleep

As some studies show, when it comes to sleep equity, there is also a racial dimension. In the YouGov survey mentioned above, 20 percent of black Americans surveyed said they get less than six hours of sleep. The figure was 17 percent for Hispanic respondents and 15 percent for white respondents.

A comparable conclusion came from a study published in 2022 by Yale University in the United States: researchers analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey from 2004 to 2018. Eleven points more for whites,” it says. In 2004 the difference was 7.5 percentage points. “Persistent sleep disparities among blacks may contribute to the continued poor health status of blacks,” said Yale professor Harlan M. Krumholz said.

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According to Heidbreder and Holzinger, similar conclusions can be drawn for Austria. An article published in October in the Lancet Public Health journal states: “Insomnia often reflects social disadvantage or exclusion; Social determinants of sleep health also vary between countries or regions.” The effects of the climate crisis are also discussed. High temperatures have had a negative impact on sleep duration, particularly affecting the elderly and those living in low-income countries in hot climates.

Sleep “socially”.

“Sleep seems very personal to us, but it is a social resource that is used and taken into account: to work, to be fit for work, we need to sleep,” historian Hanna Allheim (“The dream of sleep in the 20th century”) told the German newspaper “Tass” in 2018. And he added: “We are not sleeping for happiness, but to be able to achieve something. It's not personal anymore.”

As time goes by faster and faster and the basic need for sleep is met less and less, Heidbreder says: “We spent more time sleeping 100 years ago than we do today.” The biggest change came with the invention of the light bulb. 19th century. “This was able to turn night into day and allow people to work mostly at night,” says sleep researcher Holzinger. “That's when shift work started, and with it this rush.”

Sleep is increasingly coming at the expense of self-selection, says sleep doctor Heidbreder. According to Heidbreder, people still got nine hours of sleep in 1900, but according to Heidbreder they got only 7.5 hours in 1975 and nearly seven hours in 2000 — and the trend continues to decline. “The trend is clear,” Heidbreder says. With this in mind, both researchers see politics as a duty. In addition to more prevention and education, these include greater levels of occupational medical examinations and changes in working hours and retirement laws.

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