September 07, 2005

Newsflash: People Need Rest

In a study of the sleep-deprived medical profession it's now been revealed that exhaustion is as intoxicating as alcohol. And I mean intoxicating in the negative sense, to be impaired, to have one's judgement suffer:

US researchers found 90-hour weeks impaired performance in the same way as alcohol.

UK doctors now work 56-hour weeks but, in the past, working weeks of up to 90 hours were common.

The Journal of the American Medical Association study said it was important to ensure doctors had adequate rest.

It is known that both sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption can impair a person's reaction time, attention, judgment, control and driving ability. ...

This is what happens when you treat people like factory machines. There are times when it may be necessary, or even very rewarding, to throw oneself into long periods of physical or mental labor. But after that, a person needs to rest. Not just to sleep, but to relax.

Jared Diamond's critique of the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to early agriculture makes a persuasive argument about the decreased quality of an individual's life in the switch to agriculture. But having passed through that fire as a species, we're rediscovering the value of leisure.

It isn't a coincidence that most early science was performed by aristocrats and religious ascetics. They were often the only people in their societies who didn't have to perform a neverending litany of dawn-to-dusk tasks that were often as physically punishing as they were unfulfilling. They were free to think more clearly, to twiddle with things, to ask big questions. Not everyone took advantage of the opportunity, but some did.

It also isn't a coincidence that western science and technology have taken off at an astronomical pace as larger percentages of society have been freed from the punishing confines of pre-industrial farm labor and later, the hellish conditions of early industrial factory conditions. The direct public benefit of leisure is better tools, better ways of doing things and a greater understanding of the world that we live in.

Of course, it isn't just technology that's at issue. Even in modern America, the voter distribution rates show that wealth, which strongly correlates with leisure, is the greatest predictor of whether or not a person will vote. People living in poverty are more often too worried about their hand-to-mouth struggle to take the time to inform themselves about the issues. Broken by long hours with little reward, they're less likely to have the energy. All of us suffer when we lose their voices and perspectives and they suffer for being deprived of the time to develop their civic selves.

This isn't the first time such a study has been done though, which is why commercial drivers have their hours restricted by law. It was as much a danger to public safety to have exhausted people behind the wheel as it is to have drunk people behind the wheel. Though I see an unattractive pattern in this. It isn't that legislators are so concerned about the welfare of truck drivers as they are the threat to public safety, though I think that the two considerations are about on par.

People in many professions suffer terribly from hours that don't allow them to fully recover from one day before needing to start the next. Shift workers whose shifts rotate without regard to the difficulty of switching schedules and factory workers on mandatory overtime are glaring examples. I remember being horrified to hear that the factory employees at a previous company were sometimes forced to work seven day weeks with ten hour shifts and would be punished if caught napping. Power naps may be all the rage among white collar executives, but compassion doesn't seem to trickle down from the top any more than wealth does.

Those working in the service industry don't usually even have the luxury of being paid overtime for their exhausting hours. They may work two part time jobs, leaving them just as exhausted as their counterparts in the dwindling manufacturing sector, but completely miss the rewards of health benefits and job security in return for their hard work.

The toll of this workaholism, this inhuman and degrading use of each other, ranges from damaged families and relationships to property neglect. The private toll on people and their sense of community is enormous. I'm not sure how, but we need to find the courage to call for a stop to it. We need to find the will to say without fear of ridicule that every American deserves the same four weeks of vacation per year that our president feels entitled to. In fact, from where I'm sitting, it looks to me like most Americans deserve that vacation more than Bush ever has.

Posted by natasha at September 7, 2005 04:34 PM | Health/Medicine/Health Care | Technorati links |