Running on Empty
Sleep deprivation shouldn't be worn as a "badge of honor." Taking care of yourself means taking better care of your patients.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that those between the ages of 26 and 64 should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night—however, it’s not surprising to hear that 1 in 3 U.S. adults gets less than 6 hours a night.1 A 2018 survey found that only 1 in 10 U.S. adults prioritize sleep over factors such as work, fitness, hobbies, and social life.2 Adequate sleep times may increase workplace productivity, reduce employee healthcare costs and absences, and improve workplace safety. Sleep deprivation due to shift-work schedules, high workload, long hours, sleep interruptions, and insufficient recovery sleep have been implicated in everything that goes into the phenomenon of burnout. However, we exist in a culture where sleep deprivation is worn as a badge of honor and, at the least, has become necessary to succeed based on the way our jobs are structured. Those within the profession who work nights, a phenomenon foreign to the profession 30 years ago, know all too well about sleep deprivation and the documented effects of “shift worker syndrome,” a disorder that can significantly increase the risk of diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Along with the emotional impact, sleep deprivation can take a toll on cognitive abilities that are critical for our work, including judgment and decision-making. In fact, 17 hours of sustained wakefulness has been shown to result in behavioral changes equivalent to drinking 2 glasses of wine.3 So essential is sleep to physical and mental wellbeing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies insomnia and other sleep disorders as a public health epidemic. Veterinarians are an at-risk population for poor personal wellness, which can result in many issues, including depression, burnout, and even suicide. Yet the situation seems to be getting worse despite the loud voices calling for change and a better work-life balance.
We are responsible for the work environment we choose to accept, and it’s up to us to act by making small changes that can help rectify our profession’s sleep deficit and stop wasting the waking hours talking about it. We feel powerless sometimes for justifiable reasons to change the established culture, but we are not powerless against creating our own boundaries. It would obviously be wonderful to work 3 to 4 days a week or in 3- to 4-day cycles; it would be nice to work a maximum of an 8-hour day; it would be nice to get a lunch break away from work; it would even be nice to have break rooms that can facilitate naps! Although the last suggestion may sound juvenile or unprofessional, it’s only because we let it be. Many people will find excuses not to nap because of the negative associations that this behavior has in our society. If you substitute the word “nap” for “meditate,” you immediately have a credible break time in the eyes of some. It will take a shift in thinking to make napping acceptable, so set up a meditation room in your practice. For a profession that takes pride in improving the health of animals, we all know that we should take the same pride in helping ourselves. But many of us don’t, and it has been made to seem weak to say we are not getting enough sleep. The long sleep comes to all of us in the end, but let’s not put off the value of rest in our waking hours.
1Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SM, et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. 2015;1(1):40-43. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010
2National Sleep Foundation. 2018 Sleep in America® poll – sleep prioritization and personal effectiveness. Sleep Health. 2018. doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2018.02.007
3Williamson AM, Feyer AM. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med .2000;57(10):649-655. doi:10.1136/oem.57.10.649