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Sleepless in the White House

How long do you think you would last if your alarm rang at 4 a.m. every morning, your days lasted 18 hours, seven days a week and you were expected to be on-call 24 hours?
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How long do you think you would last if your alarm rang at four a.m. every morning and you often didn't stop working until very late at night? Your days lasted 18 hours, seven days a week, but you were expected to be on-call for 24 hours? And you're not a physician who can take several weeks of vacation a year. OK, the vacation part is a joke!

The Washington Post published an article this week detailing the grueling lifestyles of the people working in the West Wing. It's bad. It's worse than anything depicted on the TV drama. Highlights of some of the descriptions of people's days sound unbearable:

  • To fit a workout in, staffers hit the gym around 5 am.
  • Email with the day's bulletin land in Blackberries by 7, demanding attention.
  • Meetings begin by 7:30.
  • Staffers grab dinner around 8 pm and then head back to the office.
  • Conference calls consume the weekends.
  • Travel can entail an 8-day trip across 10 time zones. On such a trip, you manage to catch a few hours a night and then return home to get back to work before sunrise again.

And here's a detail that really stood out: The night before Obama announced the administration's housing plan earlier this year, one staff member e-mailed the final documents at three a.m. and asked for comments. Five people responded immediately!

The adrenaline rush that comes with winning the election and working for a president can only go so far. By now, as the article conveys, the fatigue and exhaustion is showing. White House staff have been seen nodding off in meetings (a good thing: those microsleeps can actually help them), and I can only imagine the toll this takes on their families.

I would bet that every administration has grappled with this "ironman" syndrome, which is what my old friend Martin Moore-Ede, a former Harvard University professor, calls it. He adds that the American political workplace is one of the few that still resists a means for ensuring people get rest.

It doesn't help that there are so many issues on the agenda today: a new health care system, financial recovery plans, auto bailouts, Middle East peace, nuclear nonproliferation, two wars and education reform. It also doesn't help that the expectations are so high.

Can there be a solution? Long days come with the territory in this field. Teaching sleep hygiene will fall on deaf ears. The only thing I can think of that would be realistic at the moment would be to install napping rooms in the White House where staffers can go get some legitimate shut-eye and try to recapture some of the hours left behind on tarmacs, in meetings and on the ongoing struggle to see us through the current agenda.

And how much does all this sleeplessness impact their overall health and longevity? Now that's a story for another day. If any of those staffers, or the president himself reads my blog, I'll dedicate. or rather donate, some of my time to teach them some solid sleep strategy!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM

The Sleep Doctor

This article about sleep in the White House can also be found on Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.