Everyone's Sleepless, Exhausted. Why Did Rest Become So Scarce?
The choice to sacrifice sleep isn’t really a choice – it’s structurally built-in.
On most nights, Mohini* can’t sleep. She tosses and turns before falling into a fitful slumber, only to be startled awake in the middle of the night with a dry mouth and a choking sensation. Over the years, she has tried and tested most sleep solutions doled out on the Internet – repeatedly counting to 100, meditation, reading, and finally, the one that works like a charm for her, a few swigs of Benadryl. The cough syrup might give her the recommended hours of sleep, but it is no balm for the constant exhaustion, the pounding headaches, and low productivity she often experiences during the day.
Some time ago, Mohini visited the hospital for an eye test and was detected with glaucoma. She was surprised when the doctor suggested she spend a night in the sleep clinic. As she slept, hooked up to the apparatus, the doctors monitored her sleep, noting when she awoke with a start, charting her oxygen levels, and observing her heart rate. The next morning, they diagnosed her with obstructive sleep apnea – a sleep disorder where breathing may stop and start several times while a person is asleep, often preventing one’s body and brain from receiving enough oxygen. This was also heightening the damage to her optic nerve, they told her.
Mohini is among the 104 million Indians that AIIMS researchers say are presently suffering from this common yet underdiagnosed condition. For a while now, studies have been indicating we’re in the midst of a sleep epidemic, quoting one alarming statistic after another: India is the second-most sleep deprived country; sleep disorders witnessed a 15-20% rise during the Covid19 pandemic; 55% of Indians are receiving less than 6 hours of continuous sleep each night while 21% are getting only 4 hours.
Sleep deprivation is a global problem – in the US, it has been declared a public health emergency. There’s growing recognition of the fact that not getting adequate rest leads to health issues and physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. But our collective fatigue also points to a deep-rooted cultural problem where sleep, and by extension rest, is no longer viewed as a necessity. Instead, it is something we can forgo, negotiate, and sacrifice for more work hours, higher pay, greater productivity, or, for some, mere survival.
The idea of sleep not only elicits cultural anxiety but has also been catapulted to become the “prime target of desire,” philosopher Cressida Hayes highlighted. She sums it up in her evocative project titled “Sleep is the new sex.”
What constitutes rest has also undergone an evolution, where it now incorporates Netflix and social media doom-scrolling at the end of the day, despite several studies warning us of the far-reaching impacts of being glued to screens leading to loss of sleep.
But sleep is not only biological. Like other embodied acts, it is culturally produced, notes Olivia Weisser in a review. Sleep habits evolved over time, with historians pointing to the Industrial Revolution as a turning point. It brought in artificial light, noise, dietary and lifestyle changes and, eventually, a belief that the hours we spend sleeping could be put to better use. As notions of productivity gained ground, sleeping for more than a certain number of hours went from being about bodily rest to instead becoming symbolic of laziness. And it carries forward to this day.
The idea of success sold to us by “grind culture” normalizes turning bodies into extractive resources and glorifies the sacrifice of sleep for "the greater good." Case in point: Infosys founder Narayana Murthy’s recent comments urging youngsters to work 70 hours a week so that India can compete on the global stage with other countries. He’s not alone; last year, Shantanu Deshpande, founder of Bombay Shaving Company, suggested that youngsters should work 18 hours a day in the first 4-5 years of their career. “I see a LOT of youngsters who watch random content all over and convince themselves that 'work life balance, spending time with family, rejuvenation bla bla' is important. It is, but not that early… Don't do random rona-dhona. Take it on the chin and be relentless.”
When such views come from those at the top (who are also the ones benefiting from others’ sleep loss), they end up dictating the prevailing work culture. And when the system is geared in a way to deprioritize bodies and health, it is not easy to extricate oneself from this "hustle culture" mindset without a radical shift in thought and lifestyle. “We are grind culture. Grind culture is our everyday behaviors, expectations, and engagements with each other and the world around us," notes Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, in her book “Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto.”
For Devyani*, an illustrator, this script of overwork for future career success was not only making her lose sleep but was also triggering anxiety. “If I'm not killing myself over something, I'm not working hard enough. If I'm not going through that whole negative cycle of stress and feeling unwell, it means I haven’t done enough,” she says, adding that she’s always functioning on just a few hours of disturbed sleep. To remedy this, she has meditation routines, apps that teach her to breathe right for better sleep, and melatonin gummies. “At one point, I was very reliant. Like, I wouldn’t worry about getting bad sleep because I knew I had a stash of the gummies with me,” she says.
Our problems with sleep are a million-dollar opportunity. Over the years, new terms have been coined to epitomize our skewed relationship with sleep and new solutions have emerged. To counter our rising “sleep debt,” we have a “sleep economy,” where “sleep tech” entrepreneurs provide us with wearables, meditation packs, the perfect mattress and bedding, and flavored supplements shaped like gummy bears that promise to help us sleep better. The dire and collective need for more sleep has also birthed a new niche – “sleep tourism.”
But when Devyani takes a break (which inevitably means planning a trip) to recuperate from the burnout, she is wracked with guilt. When sleep is disregarded, so is rest. “All of culture is working in collaboration for us not to rest, and when we do listen to our bodies and take rest, many feel extreme guilt and shame,” writes Hersey.
The right to rest is a fundamental human right; it has been recognized as such by India’s Supreme Court as well. But in a society riddled with inequities, the right to rest becomes a privilege and sleep deprivation is an outrage only in the population with the social and economic capital to call it out. For others, it is the accepted status quo. “The sacrifice of sleep in today’s productivity-driven society also speaks to the invisibility of the sacrifice of specific bodies in society, linked to histories of emotional labour and value extraction that are embedded in settler colonialism, racial capitalism and patriarchy – and living through systemic oppression is exhausting,” wrote Marie-Louise Richards in an essay. As it turns out, when inequalities and discrimination are embedded in our socio-cultural, political and economic systems, some bodies are pushed to extremes more than others. And research shows that these bodies primarily belong to women, the poor and people from marginalized or minority communities.
“We used to think that sleep problems were limited to Type A professionals, and they certainly aren’t immune, but low-income individuals and racial minorities are actually at greatest risk,” Wendy Troxel, a behavioral and social scientist said. Sleep, or the lack of it, is not simply a health concern. It intersects with race, ethnicity, gender and even income.
Sleep deprivation is this unequal; some suffer more than others. And the evidence is all around us. Sleep-deprived cab drivers leading precarious lives as they clock around 17 hours in order to avail company incentives; gig workers shuttling between shifts, working three to four jobs at low wages to make a living; tired women juggling babies with household chores and societal expectations with work; bodies succumbing to health conditions at an alarming rate; and entire generations turning their exhaustion into shareable memes.
In the US, poor sleep patterns are most prevalent among Black people – they are five times more likely to report less sleep than the white population. Asian and Hispanic people are approximately two times more likely to report fewer hours of sleep.
When it comes to income levels, a 2013 study by the Center for Disease Control in the US found that the share of those who earned below the poverty level received less than six hours of sleep as compared to those above the poverty line. Financial insecurity, poor physical and mental health, a lack of personal time and more time spent working on and commuting to low-income jobs – all exacerbate sleep loss, notes a report. While there’s data on this sleep gap for developed nations, there’s a dearth of research on sleep in developing nations.
Rita works part-time as a domestic worker in several houses in Delhi. She lives with her family in a rented home, having shifted to Delhi for work. Sleep disturbances are common for her. “Sometimes, when there is no water, we have to wake up at 1 am to fill the water,” she says, adding that these problems are exacerbated during the summer months when temperatures run high in the city. Shantana, who has also migrated to the city for work, narrates a similar experience: “In the summer, there is no light or water, so no sleep. The floor is boiling. Not even the fan works. There’s difficulty due to water availability as well.”
Both Rita and Shantana wake up a few hours before their husbands in order to finish the household chores – they cook, clean, ensure the children are ready for school and their husbands’ lunch boxes are packed – before leaving for their own work. They return home in the evening to make dinner while their husbands rest, before calling it a night. The household labor of women and the toll it takes – physical, mental and emotional – is invisibilized, and so is their sleep deprivation. The worrying sleep gap between men and women has been observed by researchers as well.
“When sleep is lacking or disrupted, and especially when these problems are unevenly spread, questions of justice arise,” Jonathan White, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, noted in Aeon. “To be deprived of sleep is to be deprived of much more than one’s hours of rest,” White wrote.
Over time, there have been movements that have attempted to actively reframe rest. Hersey, a performance artist and activist, created the “rest as resistance” framework, which is rooted in Black radical thought, Afrofuturism, somatics, womanism, and liberation theology, according to The Nap Ministry website. In her book, Hersey champions the revolutionary power and liberatory potential of rest for Black people and shows how active rest can resist systems of oppression such as capitalism and White supremacy. She also organizes collective napping sessions as part of her work. “I name sleep deprivation as a racial justice issue, as a social justice issue, as a public health issue… Rest is key to any type of liberation,” she noted.
Closer to home are the Meet to Sleep sessions organized by Blank Noise, where individuals come together to reclaim public spaces through the act of napping. Rest, sleep, and leisure are intermeshed with availability of space and the politics of who gets to occupy it. For long, women – whose leisure, society dictates, must be kept under wraps more so than men’s – have been prominently absent from public spaces due to concerns of safety. The campaign shows how the simple act of taking a nap in a public space engages with decades of not only policing bodies but also the norms that dictate how, when, and where to rest. In her book, however, Hersey recognizes that it’s not a simple task: “I am clearly stating that to center rest, naps, sleep, slowing down, and leisure in a capitalist, white supremacist, ableist, patriarchal world is to live as an outlier.”
Sleep is thus not only a few hours of rest that we can forego as a matter of choice. In recognizing how sleep sacrifice and the rise of sleep disorders are symptoms of a discriminatory system, we begin to also understand the nature of health injustices that are borne of structural inequalities. Sleep is a social justice issue that requires us to address the systemic exploitation of bodies and minds. And that’s a problem no meditation app, memory foam mattress, or sleep-inducing cough syrup or gummy can fix.
*Names changed to protect anonymity
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.