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Society, Politics & Law

The politics of sleep

Updated Wednesday 29th June 2011

High achievers and those at the harder end of society might not be getting enough sleep - what makes them different is how much choice they have.

Laurie Taylor:
I awoke today [to the Today programme]. That, in fact, is how I now wake every morning, not to bells or beeps or mummy shouting: "Lawrence, are you up yet?" from the downstairs hall but to the radio, to the mingled voices of Evans, Sarah, Gary, Rob and an extraordinary hypnopompic acoustic jumble of bankrupt states, longer sentences, weeping tennis players, departing armies and only half a glass of wine a day if you're over 65.

Insomnia photo montage by babblingdweeb Creative commons image Icon babblingdweeb under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Insomnia by babblingdweeb

But today there was a slight difference. My usual early morning anxieties - did I sleep enough, should I perhaps have gone to bed earlier and why did I make that cup of tea at half past four and could I have an early night tonight and am I awake enough for a long day's work at the office? - all of these had a sudden new salience because my bedtime reading had been a new book with the surprising but, as I discovered as I read, very apt title: The Politics of Sleep: Governing (Un)consciousness in the Late Modern Age. Its author is Simon J Williams and he's professor of sociology at the University of Warwick and as I might have expected he arrived dead on time earlier today for an interview. I began by asking why the politics of sleep.

Simon J Williams:
It's a fair question actually. I suppose what I'm talking about here is the way in which sleep is increasingly a topic of public concern these days - there's a lot of claims-making around sleep - are we getting enough sleep; are we a nation of sleep deprived; what are the costs and consequences of poor sleep for society; are you dangerously sleep deprived; the notion that we have a national sleep debt.

Laurie Taylor:
What do you mean by sleep debt?

Simon J Williams:
That people aren't getting enough sleep and that they're trading on dangerous levels of sleep debt and that this has costs and consequences for their performance or productivity, for their health, for their wellbeing, for public health and safety . Many accidents on the roads are sleep -related, drowsiness is the equivalent of drunkenness on the roads, so we're told.

Laurie Taylor:
You start bringing in some of the concepts from sociology, from political science - and we can start to talk really about class and income effects here, can't we, in relation to sleep?

Simon J Williams:
There are inequalities or social patternings and cultural and historical variations in sleep and we've got recent evidence from a large scale on-going ESRC - Economic and Social Research Council - study of 40,000 British households which indicates quite strong social patterning of sleep, according to things like social and economic status, gender, marital status.

So what we find, for example, in terms of your question about class, is that people in poorer disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances tend to sleep less and have greater sleep problems than those of higher socioeconomic status.

Women tend to have more reported sleep problems than men. People who are widowed or divorced or single have more reported sleep problems than married.

And so there's a pattern.

Laurie Taylor:
I suppose something like shift working is associated - people who are prepared to work during the hours when nobody else is working, that tends to be devalued doesn't it ?

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Simon J Williams:
Yes, I mean shift work[ing] is the obvious example of the ways in which work impacts on sleep. But I suppose it's more generally the way in which in the 24/7 society, the increasing demands on our time and our attention of which work is but one, people possibly working longer hours and work intensification, these sorts of things also have a huge impact.

Laurie Taylor:
You mentioned in the list when we were talking about class income effect you mentioned gender as well - tell me about the findings there.

Simon J Williams:
The findings there tend to be that women have more reported sleep problems in terms of getting to sleep, staying asleep, sleep duration, than men.

Laurie Taylor:
Presumably because they're often expected to get up during the night to deal with children?

Simon J Williams:
Well there's that notion, you mentioned shift work, there's the second shift or the third shift that women often have to do in juggling kind of family commitments, responsibilities - night time as well as day time - and also if they're working in paid employment...

Laurie Taylor:
Yes, and that raised as interesting thing, because although we're familiar from Freud with all the problems associated with toilet training and weaning, you draw attention to the problems associated with getting children to sleep and the arguments - if you like the battles - to get a child sleep patterns to conform, or adapt, to adult sleeping patterns.

Simon J Williams:
As many parents know, babies can wreak havoc with parents' sleep patterns. And I suppose, in a sense, one watches a fascinating drama unfolding as children's biological sleep architectural patterns start to become socialised into family sleep patterns over time - or not, as the case may be - and this is one of the issues, of course.

And so, parents with young children often are also suffering from sleep loss or sleep deprivation. But there's also perhaps a romanticised kind of image - perhaps a middle class image of bedtimes - [of] putting children to bed and reading bedtime stories and yet - my own personal experience will attest to this too - that it's not always that way, and it can be quite a battle zone and children getting up and they won't go to sleep....

Laurie Taylor:
And getting people to sleep when you want them to sleep, as you point out elsewhere, is rather an interesting way of talking about the relative status of people because people in institutions - prisoners, soldiers, other people like that - they go to sleep at a time which is laid down. So being able to sleep when you want to is almost like a measure of autonomy.

Simon J Williams:
Exactly, and not simply in institutions but in everyday life - people are increasingly finding that with all these competing demands on their time and their attention in a 24/7 society either they don't have enough time to sleep or if they do their head does touch the pillow they're so wired with the workaday world that they can't sleep.

Laurie Taylor:
And it is related to that. It's a way almost of announcing a certain degree of status to say that you sleep when you want to, you have control over your sleep, but also you don't need to go to sleep - you're engaged on a big task, you're a Mrs Thatcher who really doesn't need all that much sleep - there is something heroic about her.

When I was a kid growing up the big boys were those who could go to all night parties and stay up all night. That's still around, isn't it?

Simon J Williams:
Yes, there's a very strong set of ideas and values associated with, I suppose, stoicism and 'sleep is for wimps' and it goes back to those sort of issues that we were talking about with Margaret Thatcher and the notion, of course historically, ihere was a whole professional culture that was in a sense the traditional medical training was one of sleep deprivation. This is being changed now with the European Working Time Directive, [putting] downward pressure on junior doctors working hours, but even then of course there's shift work patterns to contemplate.

So there is a certain kind of macho image about going without sleep and how that's a measure of one's real fibre, real moral fibre and commitment to the work ethic.

Laurie Taylor:
There is evidence that people are concerned about not getting enough sleep. We've got several studies looking at this and about how much sleep they're now getting, how much sleep they feel they should have...

Simon J Williams:
That's right. A recent mental health foundation report seemed to suggest probably up to a third of the population may be suffering from insomnia at any one time or at least one in 10 have chronic insomnia problems.

And there are other studies. In America the Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that up to 70 million Americans have sleep problems of one kind or another. I think it's probably safe to say that one in 10 of us have moderate to perhaps even severe levels of daytime sleepiness.

The ESRC, I mentioned earlier, the large scale Understanding Society survey has also pointed to the fact that around about - staggeringly, actually - 12% of the surveyed population sleep for - or claim that they sleep for - six hours or less and six hours by most standards isn't enough.

When we look at sleep medicine and the market in sleep aids and sleep medicine, in North America there's a huge market. In the UK, for example, there's about 10 million prescriptions each year that are dispensed at a cost of about £43 million to the NHS. That's dwarfed by the figures in the States, for example, the drugs bill [for] sleep medications in the States - would be in the order of something like £2.3 billion a year, projected to go up to about £3.2 billion...

Laurie Taylor:
I think you mentioned something like a thousand sleep clinics?

Simon J Williams:
And there are in North America as well there are an increasing number of sleep clinics catering to sleep disorders and sleep problems. The picture's not quite so clear cut here, sleep medicine isn't as well developed in Britain as it is in America but, yes, there certainly is a huge kind of industry of which medicine is part - I've talked about the sleep industry and there's a medical wing of that, and there's other, commercial, aspects of the sleep industry.

Laurie Taylor:
You talk about large companies which in fact almost welcome or institutionalise ideas of power naps or moments where workers can take time off.

Simon J Williams:
Well that's right, there are companies - again particularly in North America - consultancy firms, companies that actually cater to fatigue or alertness management solutions in the workplace; companies that actually provide us with little napping pods or energy pods. Take a trip to the Empire State Building you'll find napping pods.

So we're starting to see other sectors of the economy catering to fatigue or alertness problems, these have been around for a while but perhaps we'll see an increasing number of these in a 24/7 society.

This is an edited transcript of a debate from Thinking Allowed, originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4, June 22nd 2011.

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