The Psychology Behind “Bedtime Revenge Procrastination”
While people may blame the workplace for cutting back on their free time, cutting back on sleep is probably not the best “retaliation”. Sleep deprivation, especially long term, can lead to a multitude of harmful effects, both mental and physical. In Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, the neuroscientist is blunt: “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your lifespan. And people, in general, know it: Everyone interviewed for this article felt their sleep patterns were unhealthy – but they still kept nights late.
Psychology may explain why people choose to enjoy this free time even at the expense of sleep. More and more evidence indicates the importance of time away from the pressure of work; the inability to detach can lead to stress, decreased well-being and burnout. “One of the most important aspects of recovery from work is sleep. However, sleep is affected by the way we detach, ”says Kelly of the University of Sheffield. It’s important, she explains, to have downtime when we can be mentally away from work, which would explain why people are willing to sacrifice sleep for leisure after work.
“People are stuck in a Catch-22 when they don’t have time to take time off from work before going to sleep, this can negatively affect their sleep,” says Kelly. The real solution, she suggests, is to ensure that individuals have the time to engage in activities that provide this detachment. However, this is often not something that employees can achieve on their own.
Heejung Chung, a work sociologist at the University of Kent and an advocate for greater flexibility in the workplace, considers the practice of delaying sleep to be the fault of employers. Tackling the problem would benefit workers but would also help ensure a “healthy and efficient workplace,” she said. “It’s actually a measure of productivity,” she says. “You need this time to relax. Workers need more than work. It is risky behavior to do only one thing.
Since the pandemic, companies in many countries have implemented work-from-home policies, introducing greater flexibility in working life but also, in some cases, further blurring the already thin lines between work and home. It is not yet clear how this might affect the type of work culture that lets employees avoid sleep to recoup some free time.
Chung says that real change requires institutional change, in many companies. “It is difficult for individuals to react [to their work situation], “she says. But she advises employees to talk to their co-workers and to collectively approach their boss, with evidence, if they want to demand change.
However, this might not be available in China. In fact, reports suggest companies are digging even deeper when it comes to overtime as they try to bounce back from losses caused by Covid-19. Krista Pederson, a consultant who works with multinationals and Chinese companies in Beijing, says she has observed this trend. Chinese companies see their work culture as an advantage over markets like the United States or Europe where people tend to work fewer hours: “she says.
With such a demanding work culture, employees will continue to tackle the problem in a way that works for them. Although she burns the candle at both ends, Gu Bing enjoys her job and embraces her stolen free time. “Sometimes I really think the night is perfect, beautiful even,” she said. “My friends and I converse at night and sometimes we write songs together. It’s quiet and peaceful.
And there is the possibility, for the lucky ones, of changing jobs, which Emma Rao did, finally swapping her 996 job for a little less demanding. However, Rao found that old habits are hard to break. “It’s revenge,” she says of her late bedtime. “To take back time for yourself.”