Is The ‘Rest Gap’ Why Women Are So Exhausted?

In a society that is obsessed with productivity, it's easy to see why rest is not a priority for many people.

Last month, UK-based Stylist magazine published an article about the “rest gap.” In essence, the rest gap describes the idea that women get less sleep than men because of societal pressures and expectations that take their focus away from much-needed rest.

Research says women tend to report more sleep trouble in general. They also have to deal with hormone-related issues like hot flashes or nausea during pregnancy, perimenopause and menopause, which further disrupt sleep.

This all creates a tough cycle where women aren’t getting the seven to nine hours of sleep they need.

“I’m always kind of happy to see that somebody can give a name that simplifies such a very nuanced and complex phenomenon,” said LaWanda Hill, a psychologist based in California. “The rest gap speaks to just the ways in which women disproportionately are impacted in society.”

“I think you can add the rest gap, you can add the wealth gap, you can add the health gap … it just really simplifies all the things which we are subjected to because of structures, systems, policies, laws and societal norms,” Hill continued.

There are a lot of contributing factors to the rest gap. Below, experts share their thoughts on why this happens and how to sleep better if you’re experiencing it:

Women are conditioned to take care of others before themselves.

“Societally, there’s so many different reasons why [the rest gap happens] and why women often don’t give themselves permission to rest,” said Tasha Bailey, a psychotherapist in London and author of “Real Talk: Lessons From Therapy on Healing & Self-Love.”

“I think as women, we’ve been primed to be people-pleasers,” Bailey continued. “When we’re children, we’re often celebrated for being nurturing and showing empathy and cooperation.”

Hill offered a similar sentiment, saying that women often grow up believing “they’re responsible for the well-being of ― at the very minimum ― their immediate family.”

Conversely, it’s seen as a bad thing when women are assertive or focus on themselves.

“I think that then leads many women to disregard their own need for rest and to keep working, pushing on and eventually burning out,” Bailey said.

This is especially true for moms.

For women who have children, parenthood adds an additional layer. While many men are more involved than ever when it comes to taking care of their kids, generational conditioning has still taught many people that women need to be the main caregivers. This is often on top of demanding jobs, family of origin needs, friendship needs and community obligations.

This responsibility is “not going to be undone tomorrow … socialization starts in childhood, so we’ve been socialized for so long to believe that we were primarily responsible for that,” Hill said.

Being the main nurturer or caretaker for your kids and family can be rewarding, but it is also downright exhausting. If you’re the main person in charge of making lunches, helping with homework, caring for ailing parents and shuttling kids back and forth to school — you’ll only have less time to rest.

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In a society that is obsessed with productivity, it’s easy to see why rest is not a priority for many people.

We live in a productivity-obsessed world.

“I love the term ‘hustle culture’ because I think that is what we’re all living in. We’re just working and we’re hustling, and we’re trying to be productive and we’re trying to get everything right,” said Meredith Van Ness, a psychotherapist and the owner of Meredith Van Ness Therapy in Colorado. “Everyone’s trying to do the best that they can, but it’s like, ‘When is the best good enough?’”

The goal post keeps moving, and, as a result, trying to do your best can quickly become strenuous. For example, if you’re trying to be the best mom and caretaker, you’re probably showing up to every single event or reading longer stories to your kids at night. But that’s a cycle that can go on and on until burnout.

For people who aren’t moms, it could mean telling yourself you deserve a quiet weekend but letting guilt take over, leading you to clean your house, car and garage instead of resting.

Our culture glorifies being busy, Van Ness noted, “and when we do that … then I think it’s going to be harder for women to turn that off at the end of the night.”

The obsession with productivity will likely make you put your bedtime off if you think you have to finish a lengthy to-do list before the lights go out.

“We feel like there’s so much pressure on being productive, and self-care and rest aren’t necessarily a part of that equation as far as kind of what our society has put on us,” Van Ness said.

Work plays a role, too.

In office settings, women are often working doubly hard to prove themselves. This is even more exacerbated for Black women, other women of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Hill said.

This heightened pressure at work can lead to mental and physical stress, as well as anxiety.

“And anxiety often rears its head at the time for women to go to sleep or rest,” Hill said. “So their sleep is disrupted because of the amount of stresses that they have [from just] being a woman in society.”

Day-to-day work stress wasn’t something most women faced 100 years ago, either, as most women did not work outside of the home.

“Obviously, now we’re in a modern world where women are working … but they still have the same expectations to run the family home and to maintain family harmony, yet still hold up a full-time job,” Bailey said.

The expectations haven’t been loosened to meet the reality of 40-hour work weeks. Instead, women are expected to do the same tasks that were expected decades ago.

To cope, it can be helpful to take breaks during the day and set boundaries.

Sleep is non-negotiable. Rest throughout the day can even be looked at this way, too, with Van Ness noting that rest can mean different things for people.

“That’s a different category than sleep … we could also call that mindfulness, or we could also take that as moments of well-being,” Van Ness said.

“You could probably call it anything you want, but I think it’s resting emotionally, mentally just throughout the day … taking a few deep breaths, and just saying, ‘OK, how am I doing? I’m going to check in with myself.’”

There’s no one right way to rest, either. You can listen to your body’s cues and practice whatever relaxation technique you see fit. This could be meditation, going on a walk, spending time in nature, practicing breath work or calling a friend. Not only will you feel better after listening to what your body needs, but you’ll also be better prepared to finish the tasks that need to get done.

Allowing yourself to rest and de-stress during the day can also carry over into the night. Walking and mindfulness meditation are known to help people sleep better — so it’s a win-win all around.

While carving out time for yourself to rest, also consider where else you can make time for yourself.

“Because we haven’t capped what we are taking on — as moms, parents and women — then we take on too much,” Hill said.

This is where boundaries can come in.

“I think we’ve got to do a better job of having more emotional boundaries, as hard as it is, so that … we can begin to close this gap,” Hill said.

So, if you feel too drained to babysit your nephew, say no to that request. Or consider setting boundaries around your phone use so your friends and family know not to expect a text reply from you after a certain time.

Know that sleep is essential, not a reward.

It’s common for people to look at rest as a reward that happens once a task is complete, but this is the wrong perspective.

“Rest [is] our basic human essential need, we need to feel rested and energized in order to do what we need to do in our day-to-day lives,” Bailey said.

“If we don’t get that rest, whether it’s physical rest or whether it’s emotional rest … we will end up feeling burnt out, we’ll end up feeling resentful, we’ll end up feeling like we can’t really be fulfilled.”

Getting enough sleep has countless benefits: it’s good for your heart health, can reduce your risk of cancer and dementia, and is good for your mental health, too.

In other words, you shouldn’t be skimping on sleep, even if society makes it harder for women to get enough of it. As we need food and water, rest is also a basic need, Bailey said.

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