Trending Topics

‘Why We Sleep’: The book every firefighter needs to read

Sleeping less than seven hours per night increases risks for nearly every disease

GettyImages-155283322-1.jpg

The fire service needs to start prioritizing sleep, not just as one of the pillars of health, wellness and safety, but as the foundation upon which everything else is built.

I read a lot of books. Most are good, some are great, and few are life-changing. “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Matthew Walker is a life-changer.

I used to say that the book scared me into prioritizing my sleep. With time, I realize that it’s not that I am scared into sleeping better but rather it gave me permission to prioritize my sleep. While napping or going to bed early once seemed like a luxury, I now consider it more important than my workout or what I eat.

The fire service needs to start prioritizing sleep, not just as one of the pillars of health, wellness and safety, but as the foundation upon which everything else is built.

I have said it and I’ve heard it time and time again in firehouses across the country: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Well, fun fact, research shows that not getting enough sleep will actually lead to shorter lifespan than if you are well-slept! So, while you will sleep when you’re dead, and that eternal sleep will come sooner if you are not getting seven or more hours of sleep a night.

Walker’s book lays out all the health impacts of not getting enough sleep. Sleeping less than seven hours per night increases risks for nearly every disease – cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, fertility issues, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and suicidal ideation. These are all health challenges firefighters struggle with, making it even more important for fire service personnel to prioritize getting enough sleep.

For a scientist, Walker’s actually pretty funny – or as funny as a scientist can be. He walks you through the science of sleep, why it is so important, what happens when you sleep, and what happens when you don’t. The findings he reports are amazing and humbling all at the same time. He challenges a lot of assumptions and long-held beliefs with evidence. For instance, think you are just someone who operates at optimum capacity with less than four hours sleep a night? It could be. There are people who are the “sleepless elite” who truly won’t or can’t sleep longer than that, and it has been tied to a specific gene. However, your chances of truly having that gene are about the same as your chances of being hit by lightning.

Wondering if safety naps should be a thing or if they are just an excuse for people to slack off at work? Walker has an answer for that too. (You’ll have to read the book to find out.)

Not into reading? Don’t worry, he also has TEDTalks and MasterClasses on sleep.

Whatever way you prefer to get your information, DO THAT. Listen to his message, and figure out what you can do to prioritize your own sleep.

Additional sleep resources


Watch Dr. Jahnke on the Better Every Shift podcast


Sara Jahnke, PhD, is the director and a senior scientist with the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research at the National Development & Research Institutes - USA. With over a decade of research experience on firefighter health, Dr. Jahnke has been the principal investigator on 10 national studies as well as dozens of studies as a co-investigator. Her work has focused on a range of health concerns, including the health of female firefighters, behavioral health, risk of injury, cancer, cardiovascular risk factors, and substance use, with funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant R&D Program, the National Institutes of Health and other foundations. Jahnke has more than 100 publications in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Awards include the 2019 Endowed Lecture at the annual conference of the American College of Epidemiology; the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence in Fire Service Research as well as the Excellence in Research, Safety, Health & Survival Award, both from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); and the 2016 John Granito Award for Excellence in Firefighter Research from the International Journal of Fire Service Leadership and Management. Connect with Jahnke on LinkedIn, Twitter or via email.

RECOMMENDED FOR YOU