A recent Harvard School of Public Health study suggests that African Americans are more likely to experience “short” sleep—defined as fewer than seven hours per night—than white Americans.
Such findings could be dismissed as being attributed to socioeconomic disparities, but this survey, published last week in the American Journal of Epidemiology, compared African Americans and white Americans from the same work forces. The researchers surveyed more than 135,000 participants, and after adjusting for factors including age, demographic factors, and lifestyle habits, such as smoking, looked at the percent of people who had on average fewer than seven hours of sleep.
In all industries, except for retail and food, African Americans experienced “short” sleep more often than white Americans. Outside of the food and retail sectors, 42 percent of African Americans experience “short sleep” as compared to 26 percent of white Americans. The largest disparity in sleeping hours between races was among professionals, with 28 percent of white professionals experiencing “short sleep,” whereas 37 percent of black professionals did.
“This may suggest that American workplaces, or at least to succeed in certain professions, requires working very long hours in order to succeed,” said Harvard Medical School professor Susan Redline, one of the study’s authors. “The fact that you saw the biggest difference in African Americans made us postulate ‘John Henryism:’ that a minority that does well in society does so at an increased risk to his or her health.”
A variety of factors could be attributed to this lack of sleep, including workplace discrimination and lack of emotion and financial support networks.
“Considering history of this country, black professionals are more likely to be the first generation of college graduates and lack professional or social networks, whether emotional or financial,” said Chandra L. Jackson, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the lead author of the study. “If you lack those supportive networks, you may have to work more.”
According to Jackson, implicit and explicit discrimination in the workplace can cause stress that could lead to lack of sleep.
“With limited resources for black professionals, there is evidence that in order to overcome stereotypes associated with their race they expend a lot of energy in order to prove, ‘I deserve to be here,’” Jackson said.
However, the authors note that it is important to consider different cultural factors and lifestyle habits that may lead to decreased sleep and that more research is necessary to determine exactly which factors are responsible.
“Insufficient sleep clearly impacts individuals of all socioeconomic statuses and is probably pervasive in many areas of society,” Redline said.
In terms of what changes could be made to the workplace in order to improve health conditions for all employees, Jackson suggested work site wellness programs that emphasize sleep as well as cultural sensitivity training for all workers.
—Staff writer Anneli L. Tostar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AnneliTostar.