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Racial inequalities in sleep deficiencies: The role of stress in the workplace

A growing literature documents Black-White inequalities in sleep deficiencies with Black adults experiencing less sleep and lower sleep quality compared to White adults. Because sleep hygiene is tightly linked to health, racial inequalities in sleep deficiencies may be a key determinant of racial inequalities in health.

Racial inequalities in work-related stress may be a crucial, but understudied driver of sleep inequalities and ultimately, health inequalities. As with all racial groups, the majority of Black men and women are in the labor force; however, compared to White adults, Black adults spend more time in the workplace, are more likely to hold multiple jobs, and twice as likely to hold two full-time jobs. Further compared to White adults, Black adults tend to be in occupations that are objectively more stressful, where they have less control and greater physical and emotional demands, and to report greater levels of stress at work.

While work-related stress has been linked to sleep deficiencies, there is a need to examine more racially-salient forms of stress such as vigilance, or the thoughts and behaviors in which Black Americans may engage in order to navigate everyday spaces such as the workplace. A substantial qualitative literature indicates that Black adults regularly anticipate and worry about potential encounters in everyday life such as being followed in stores or having assumptions made about their intellect or character. Vigilance may be particularly important for sleep inequalities because it captures a racially-salient and prevalent form of stress with characteristics that interfere with sleep quality and duration, including: (a) anticipatory stress, which predicts increased biological stress even in the absence of a stressful event; and (b) ruminative stress, which can transform acute situations into chronic sources of stress.

Using both real world and laboratory settings, we are collecting data from 500 Black men and women to capture both momentary work-related stressful experiences and chronic work-related stress. We are examining the linkages between racially-salient, work-related stress, captured through ecological momentary assessments, and sleep deficiencies, captured through self-report and actigraphy. The workplace is particularly relevant for racial inequalities in health due to focus on economic upward mobility among Black Americans and the growth of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that may widen inequalities due to the need for vigilance as Black workers join predominantly White workplaces.