Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness

Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness

Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness

Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness


Workers in the United States are losing sleep. In the global economy a growing number of employees hold jobs--often more than one at once--with unpredictable hours. Even before the rise of the twenty-four-hour workplace, the relationship between sleep and industry was problematic: sleep is frequently cast as an enemy or a weakness, while constant productivity and flexibility are glorified at the expense of health and safety.

Dangerously Sleepy is the first book to track the longtime association of overwork and sleep deprivation from the nineteenth century to the present. Health and labor historian Alan Derickson charts the cultural and political forces behind the overvaluation--and masculinization--of wakefulness in the United States. Since the nineteenth century, men at all levels of society have toiled around the clock by necessity: steel workers coped with rotating shifts, Pullman porters grappled with ever-changing timetables and unrelenting on-call status, and long-haul truckers dealt with chaotic life on the road. But the dangerous realities of exhaustion were minimized and even glamorized when the entrepreneurial drive of public figures such as Thomas Edison and Donald Trump encouraged American men to deny biological need in the name of success. For workers, resisting sleep became a challenge of masculine strength.

This lucid history of the wakeful work ethic suggests that for millions of American men and women, untenable work schedules have been the main factor leading to sleep loss, newer ailments such as shift work sleep disorder, and related morbidity and mortality. Dangerously Sleepy places these public health problems in historical context.


One thing is absolutely certain in America: the quality and quantity of
sleep obtained is substantially less than the quality and quantity that are
needed. Over the past century, we have reduced our average nightly total
sleep time by more than 20 percent. Today, cultural and economic forces
combine to create a 24-hour society in which millions of Americans—
either chronically or intermittently—obtain insufficient sleep as a result
of workplace and lifestyle determinants. a convincing body of scientific
evidence and witness testimony indicates that many Americans are
severely sleep deprived and, therefore, dangerously sleepy.

—National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, 1993

American society harbored many dangerously sleepy people long before the landmark report of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research. This book explores the making of a restless nation by concentrating on the fraught historical relationship between sleep and work—the two biggest time commitments of most adults throughout the modern era. Indeed, America’s well-known pattern of overwork sets it apart from all other advanced, affluent societies. While employees in other prosperous nations saw their working time decline in the late twentieth century, the average worker in the United States saw his or her time on the job increase by over 160 hours per year. This trend reduced the time left for sleeping and other forms of rest. in the 1990s, 24 percent of American workers slept six hours or less a day. By 2007, 30 percent of the workforce fell into that short-sleep category, with employees in the manufacturing and transportation sectors exceeding the overall average. Almost half the nation’s night-shift workers get by on a sleep allowance of six hours or less. This book seeks to uncover some of the damage inflicted by inadequate recuperative rest due to working time.

The sheer duration of time at work is one of two critical temporal factors . . .

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