AMY LINDGREN: Tips for making work healthy
For a person who often misses sleep, the research I recently heard on the radio from a neuroscientist specializing in that subject was unsettling at best. According to Matthew Walker, and the science he references in his book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” insufficient sleep is linked to everything from obesity and suicide to a future diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Walker, who directs the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, gave a 2017 lecture at the Commonwealth Club of California that was rebroadcast recently on Minnesota Public Radio (you can hear the broadcast here: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/02/09/why_sleep_matters). According to Walker, Americans are losing the battle for sleep at an alarming pace: In 1942, adults averaged 7.9 hours of sleep; today the number is about 6.5 hours.
Since my bailiwick is employment, Walker’s comments naturally brought to mind the workplace factors that impinge on one’s sleep, and on our health overall. I decided to gather a short list of things we all might consider trying in order to offset potentially harmful effects of our work lives. Luckily, most of these health-saving steps are in the control of the average worker.
Sleep more. With notable exceptions for caregivers, most people can exert more control over their total hours of sleep. I find it interesting that in the pre-WWII era, when so many people worked as farmers burdened with morning chores, they still slept more than today’s employees, some of whom literally phone in their work.
One way to get the recommended hours of sleep is to reduce your screen time. Not only do Americans interact with screens for more hours each workday than ever before, their recreational use of everything from television to gaming devices to mobile phones has also skyrocketed.
If screen time isn’t the culprit stealing your Zs, perhaps your commute is. If your round-trip commute exceeds an hour each day, you’re probably giving up some sleep to do it. Depending on the job, solutions may range from telecommuting to finding work closer to home.
But if sleep issues stem from a tricky work schedule that can’t be shifted, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Difficulty negotiating solutions with your boss should trigger the question: Is this the best job available for you? Are you sure?
Don’t take risks. The recent stories of actress Uma Thurman sparring with director Quentin Tarantino about doing a questionable stunt scene are heartbreaking. She lost the argument and ended up with car crash injuries that still give her pain. Perhaps it’s hard to relate to this particular workplace injury, but I’m betting you’ve taken more than one risk on the job that could (or did) end badly. Next time, just don’t. Step away and think: How else could this get done? Is the urgency real enough to risk injury? Get in the habit of putting safety first.
Do the Hokey-Pokey. Remember that children’s song? You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out…Whatever job you have, alternate standing, sitting and walking numerous times throughout the day, and be mindful about small choices. Walking from the far end of the parking lot, taking the stairs instead of the elevator – and all of the other ideas you’ve already heard but possibly ignored – can really add up.
Manage stress. Whatever the source of the stress, the fact is, no one can manage it but you. You already know that your options range from meditation or exercise to limiting your exposure to stressful situations, to seeing a mental health counselor to – you guessed it – changing jobs. The bottom line is pretty straightforward: If you believe the stress is harming you, it’s your responsibility to do something about it. Waiting for someone else to manage it is only going to be more stressful.
Balance your life. Does your work drain all your energy or time for exercise, hobbies, socializing, or family events? Then your work is too intense, period. Set a deadline on solving this problem, whether by initiating three-day weekends, reducing hours, socializing with friends over a box lunch in the parking lot…you’re a creative person, so use that power to re-balance your life.
Can you do all these things to stay healthy while working? Hard to say. But I do believe we can control more of our work lives than many of us seem to think. It’s ironic that America’s history includes people protesting and literally dying in some cases to bring us safer workplaces, only to have us disregard what power we’ve gained to maintain our own quality of life. Sleep on it and see if you don’t agree.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.