03/30/2012 08:38 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

Sleepless on Wall Street

Wall Street jobs are coveted and highly competitive; they're also notoriously demanding. It's not a stretch to imagine the long hours, intense pressure and grueling pace of Wall Street work could take its toll on sleep and overall health. A new study confirms just that. This in-depth research also sheds some interesting and detailed light on a complicated work culture that drives its young professionals to forgo sleep and compromise their health, ignoring signs and symptoms of stress and illness along the way.

Alexandra Michel, a business professor at University of Southern California, spent nine years studying groups of investment bankers at two large (and unnamed) U.S. banks. Michel's subjects were young -- their average age at the start of the study was 28 -- and evenly split between male and female. For these bankers, 120-hour work weeks were typical. In the nine years that Michel spent researching their work habits, none of her subjects ever worked fewer than 80 hours per week. In addition to the long hours, employees were expected to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via cellphone or PDA. Long hours, combined with fast pace, high pressure and the highly competitive nature of the work, created a stress-filled work environment. Bankers themselves described their work environments as "boot camps" and "grind mills."

Under these conditions, it's not surprising that any attempt at separation between work life and non-work life would collapse, which is exactly what happened. Over a period of years, Michel's research shows that her subjects' sleep and health collapsed as well. Insomnia and depression were commonly reported among the investment bankers. The finance workers also reported relying on alcohol and drugs as relief from the pressure, stress and fatigue of their work.

For a period of three years, these young workers were generally able to ignore the toll that lack of sleep and long, intense work conditions had on their bodies.

After year three, however, employees reported having a much harder time bearing up against constant sleep deprivation, grueling work hours and intense stress.

News of sleep problems, stress and health risks associated with high-pressure finance work aren't really new or surprising. I wrote about another study -- this one in the UK -- about sleep problems and stress among financial workers. In this study, insomnia, depression and anxiety were found to be widespread among finance workers. These conditions affected employees at all levels, from top executives to new recruits. Like the U.S. investment bankers in this latest research, finance workers in the UK often ignored their symptoms, and often resorted to alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.

The risks of overwork to sleep and overall health are by no means limited to Wall Street or to work in the financial industry. We're seeing a lot of research these days about sleep problems and health risks for employees in demanding and high-pressure jobs:

  • This study of software engineers in India found that 56 percent suffered from insomnia, a rate twice as high as the general population. Among the subjects, women were more likely to have mild to moderate insomnia, while men were more likely to suffer from severe insomnia.
  • A recent study of law enforcement in the U.S. and Canada revealed widespread sleep problems among its officers. Forty percent of law enforcement officers had some type of sleep disorder, with 33 percent suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. Officers who had sleep apnea were 148 percent more likely to also suffer from depression, and 61 percent more likely to have diabetes.
  • Firefighters and other shift workers also struggle with the effects of long hours and irregular sleep schedules.

These are all regarded as high-pressure and demanding jobs. But whose job these days isn't? You don't have to be a Wall Street hotshot to know the challenges of long work days, the pressure to be available to your employer on a near-constant basis, and the feeling of needing to always be doing more. You also know what kind of toll this nonstop work mode can have on your body, your sleep and your health.

Striking a balance between our work lives and personal lives, of course, is the key. So is managing stress, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, exercising regularly and keeping our digital devices out of the bedroom and our nighttime routines. No, finding balance is not always easy. But your sleep and your health will benefit.

Remember my 5 steps to better sleep and better balance:

  1. Stick to one sleep schedule, even on weekends
  2. Eliminate caffeine after 2 p.m.
  3. Stop alcohol three hours before bed
  4. Stop exercise four hours before bed
  5. Get 15 minutes of sunshine every morning

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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