On the Perils of Work-Related Fatigue
Spending time around someone who constantly lacks sleep is not a pleasant experience. My family could tell a few tales about me recently – irritability, weight gain, poor decision making and an immune system that seems to invite every small illness that’s floating around. This week has been particularly difficult for them, with work dragging me ever further away from the fabled land of Nod. But at least I have time to rest and reflect on the weekend, time to change my ways. What about people don’t?
As I’ve mentioned before, there are many tens of thousands of migrant workers here in Hong Kong who work around 18 hours a day, 6 days a week. Or, to put it another way, they sleep 6 hours or less a night. How does that affect their work and their health? And what are the long-term consequences of contract-inspired sleep loss? First, allow me to set the scene with a story I know well.
My sister-in-law is the domestic helper to a wealthy family who quite frankly don’t need to be waited on hand and foot. But such is their acquired dependence on children woken, breakfast made and late-night snacks prepared by someone else that she rarely sleeps before midnight and rises by six. On Sunday she visits my family and me, sleeping a few hours until she leaves at 6 pm to beat a draconian curfew. At dinner she’s back at work, and won’t rest again until late at night. Each week her fatigue combined with hard work becomes a little more difficult to endure. But ask if she’s coping and she’ll tell you she is.
Clearly the need to sleep during the day on Sunday suggests she’s wrong.
We tend to think of sleep deprivation as something that happens all at once – the all-night session at work, the complete inability to sleep from a savage bout of insomnia – and even then treat it a little flippantly. But there has been a good deal of speculation for a few years now that ‘sleep debt’, or the difference between how much you actually sleep (6 hours or less for my sister-in-law) and how much you should sleep (8 hours for most adults), can be as disastrous as any other kind of debt.
A recent issue of Scientific American highlighted an important implication of sleep debt – it can take more than a month, even more than two, of proper rest to pay off. There is no quick-fix, no magical cure. In the meantime, impaired mental function, incapacity to properly organise and, even more alarmingly, irregular heartbeat can become the norm.
How can a domestic helper working 18 hours a day, six days a week function properly, maintain her health and pay off her sleep debt? Put simply, she can’t. Domestic helpers in Hong Kong sign a two year contract, and even if they renew that contract they are unlikely to have more than a month’s continuous ‘holiday’ rest in the first 4 years they spend here.
There is a very simple answer to this problem – regulated working hours and the provision of a private space in which to sleep. That would seem to be a bare minimum of human decency on the part of employers. Unfortunately, the standard domestic helper contract provides neither of these necessities. Many employers are sensible enough to provide them anyway; many more are not.
My sleep loss is circumstantial and will pass. My sister-in-law and those like her lose sleep as a condition of their employment. Fatigue, sometimes severe fatigue, is a daily experience. Sure, they can choose other jobs, but those who take their places will suffer the same. The relentless cycle, the waking hell, will continue.
How can their employers manage to sleep at night?