However, lifestyle decisions with respect to work and family, and other social concerns (domestic violence, divorce, healthcare inequality) top the list of external pressures that can lead to sleep disturbances in women who work outside the home as well as women who stay at home to raise families.
(For this post, the term "working women" will be categorized as women who work from the home, outside the home, or who are tasked with raising a family full time, unless distinguished otherwise.)
The impact of work on women’s sleep
Check out these realities:
- Women who are employed as shift workers risk poor sleep in the long term. The Nurses’ Health Study, a long-range research study following the health data of 71,000 shift workers over 10 years, found that women who slept less than 5 hours (due to shift work) had a 45 percent greater risk for heart disease compared to those getting 8 hours of sleep. Sleeping less than 5 hours was also linked to developing type 2 diabetes and demonstrated a 35 percent increase for falling asleep at the wheel or experiencing dangerous driver fatigue.
- Single and childless working women holding jobs that task them during the day aren’t getting any better sleep, according to the 2007 Sleep in American poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF): most get less than 6 hours of sleep a night and wake up feeling tired most days of the week.
- New mothers typically expect a few months of sleep deprivation due to nighttime awakenings to tend to infants; what sometimes results is a long-term problem with daytime fatigue, insomnia or circadian disruption.
- According to details from the NSF poll published in the Hartford-Courant last September, “stay-at-home mothers were the most likely to experience insomnia, with 74 percent saying they had symptoms at least a few nights a week. Also, 72 percent of working mothers and 68 percent of single working women report having insomnia several times a week.”
- Working mothers have been shown, by research gathered by the same 2007 NSF poll, to be more likely to suffer from sleep disorders. A US News & World Report article points out: “Women are packing their own briefcase at the same time they're getting their kids' backpacks ready for school the next day; they're often the last ones in the house to go to bed.”
- The empty nest doesn’t always improve the situation. As women opt to have children at a later age, odds are they experience fewer of the newfound freedoms of the empty nest due to encroaching perimenopause and menopause concerns that negatively impact sleep.
- The Sandwich Generation may also take a toll, as women in this age bracket often become the primary caregivers for older relatives. According to data from the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project, Laurie Wertich at A Woman’s Health writes: “nearly half (47 percent) of those currently raising kids have a parent over age 65 who requires care or may require care in the future. Women bear the brunt of the workload—in fact, they are twice as likely as men to handle the caregiving.” Which means they’re also more likely to suffer from the consequences of sleep deprivation.
Working isn’t optional for most women anymore
Gone are the days of the single income household. Working (either as a single or married woman, or with or without children) isn’t optional for most women, single or married. Economic realities in the US show increased numbers of women are working multiple jobs to pay the rent. Money is a problem that continues to keep everyone up at night.
On top of these concerns are other external causes for poor sleep besides economic instability: anxiety about political and social concerns (such as sexual assault, crime rates, and racism) and the unique challenges of single parenthood (and working motherhood) related to support systems.
It’s not too far a leap to suggest that the need to work, whether to maintain a career or to pay the bills, is likely at the root of these external challenges, although many arguments have been made that point to hormones as a chief concern. While hormones are naturally part of the discussion, however, they can’t be the sole reason for so much lost sleep.
Working married women, whether they have children or not, may be spending her days full time (or overtime) at work only to come home and face several hours of household tasks or additional work needed to be completed off the clock. In the end, they end up trading in sleep for work.
Throw in the economic realities of single working mothers who may be a paycheck away from eviction or foreclosure, with limited healthcare and family support for younger children, and it’s a wonder some women sleep at all.
But even for those women who are not working outside the home, but who are raising children full time, the problems of sleep deprivation are no less significant. The NSF 2007 survey finds that for all women facing familiar or workplace responsibilities, problems with significant daytime sleepiness and insomnia “were more likely to report high stress (80%), drive drowsy at least once per month (27%), spend less time with friends and family (39%), be too tired for sex (33%), and be late for work (20%).”
The risks of trading in sleep for work
When women choose to lose sleep in order to maintain their careers, they risk developing chronic illness. According to research at Duke University discussed in an article at WebMD, “women who reported unhealthy sleep are at an elevated risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression.”
Problems with sleep ultimately take working women down the path toward higher levels of C-reactive protein (linked to high blood pressure and heart disease), glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, obesity, and problems not only with cognitive dysfunction and memory disruption, but increased negative mood.
Women who work may be more willing to ignore fatigue, even when it’s an indication they need more sleep or are suffering a real sleep disorder like sleep apnea, if it means they can get ahead at work or stay on top of household demands.
Why working women need their sleep
The most obvious reason why sleep matters for women who work or who are raising children full time is simple: physical, emotional, and mental health can be put at risk.
But the benefits of adequate sleep are numerous and might actually offset some of the challenges that beset women who trade in sleep for work. Enough sleep can result in:
- Improved job performance
- Better concentration and focus
- Fewer car accidents or mistakes on the job or in the home
- Healthier social interactions
- Improved quality of life
Dr. Anita Bhola, medical director of sleep medication at Montefiore Nyack Hospital, writes in US News & World Report: “If your career depends on focus and productivity, it's possible your lack of sleep is holding you back professionally. That's because sleep and productivity are directly intertwined. You can't expect to be productive without getting enough quantity or quality sleep on a consistent basis. Women professionals are at particular risk of suffering from sleep problems.”
She suggests a wide range of sleep hygiene practices to improve sleep for those who aren’t deprived due to medical concerns (such as sleep disorders, medication side effects, or other health conditions).
Prioritizing sleep may be a woman’s best defense against sleep deprivation, in the long run. And that means making time for sleep and preparing for it with a specific strategy in mind. Whether women will adapt to the demands of a full night’s sleep remains to be seen, but the consequences are known and supported by the data.
If you struggle with sleep, get some help. See a doctor, consult a resource on sleep hygiene, improve your sleeping space, learn relaxation tips, improve your diet, build in exercise every morning. Whatever it takes to achieve at least 7 hours of sleep at night is worth the investment of your time and energy, not only for your career, but for your role as a mother/wife/friend, and for your long-term health and well being.