‘I Have to Share a Hotel Room With a Co-worker Who Screams in her Sleep!’

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I work for a nonprofit. Whenever there is travel, co-workers double up two to a room. The first time I shared a room with a co-worker, she first talked in her sleep and then bolted upright in the middle of the night screaming, crying, and thrashing. She was shouting about things like blood and murder. It scared me so much I had to turn the lights on and shake her to find out if she was all right. She nearly hit me when I tried to wake her up and I honestly thought she was having an episode or breakdown.

My co-worker told me she gets night terror episodes but it’s not a big deal. She asked me not to wake her if it happened again because I could end up getting hurt accidentally and her episodes would end naturally on their own. She said she doesn’t even remember them when she wakes up. Even if she doesn’t, I certainly did. It was only a single-night trip but I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night because she had scared me. Later, after another co-worker had to travel with her, she asked me if our co-worker had any night-terror episodes when we traveled because it had happened on her trip on both nights and nearly scared my co-worker to death the first time it happened.

I have had to travel with that co-worker again for three nights, and even though I knew nothing was wrong with her during her episodes, I couldn’t sleep — both from the anticipation of her episodes and the disruption during them. I’ve heard similar stories from others who have had to travel with her. My co-worker says she can’t help it and it’s not a big deal.
It might not be for her but it is for everyone else who ends up terrified and not able to sleep.

I went to my boss about it after it happened the second time, but he didn’t understand what the problem was and accused me of trying to get out of sharing a room. I don’t mind sharing a room. I shared a room with my three younger brothers back home and when my family immigrated here. I’ve served with the armed forces and am in the reserves now, and I have only ever worked in academia or the nonprofit world, where sharing hotel rooms is standard. I’m so used to sleeping in rooms with other people that it doesn’t even register with me. But I’ve never had to share a room with a person who screams half the night about murder and thrashes and throws things.

My boss, his boss, and their boss are all men and have never had to share with her. They say they can’t see how a bit of talking and rolling over could be disruptive and don’t listen when we say otherwise. My co-worker told my boss she can’t see how her night-terror episodes could be “that bad.” She has never apologized for them and says it’s a fact of life she cannot control. What do we do when getting our own rooms is not an option and travel is a part of our job?

Your bosses called it “a bit of talking and rolling over”?

Either they’re being deliberately obtuse or you need to get much more explicit about what’s going on.

As in: “Jane has a medical condition that causes her to scream and cry in the night, and it’s not possible to sleep through it. I’m perfectly willing to share a room with anyone else you want to put me with, so it’s not about that, but I can’t sleep with someone literally screaming in the bed next to me. Given that I of course can’t function on business trips without sleep, we’re going to need to put me in a different room. What’s the best way to arrange that?”

Note that in this framing, you’re presenting it as an “of course” (of course you can’t be expected to travel like that) and moving on to the logistics (“what’s the best way to take care of this?”). That’s often a surprisingly effective formulation, because you skip right over the “give me your permission” part of things. And when you act as if of course someone will take a reasonable stance, often they will.

If your manager and the people above him are at all reasonable, this should be effective. But if not, you might be more effective if you band together with your co-workers who have had the same experience and all push back as a group. It’s harder to blow off an entire group of people taking the same stand — and if you all say you’re willing to share rooms with others, it’s going to be harder for your bosses to pretend this is just about not wanting to share at all.

For what it’s worth, your co-worker is also being awfully derelict here. Unless she’s somehow under the same impression as your bosses that she’s just mumbling in her sleep, there’s no excuse for her minimizing the impact of the situation on the people sharing space with her. It might be worth being more direct with her, explaining that her night terrors are so disruptive that it’s impossible to sleep in the same room as her, and urging her to ask for a private room as a medical accommodation.

Frankly, the whole concept of having adults share hotel rooms on business travel is pretty flawed, and there are good reasons that it’s not a thing in most industries. Work travel is draining, and most people want privacy at the end of the day and aren’t up for bunking with co-workers (even though you’re being very gracious about that part). Plus, plenty of people have medical conditions that they don’t care to disclose or deal with around co-workers but which will become clear if they’re room sharing (for example, someone with IBS who needs a lot of time in the bathroom, or someone who sleeps with a CPAP mask). Hell, even leaving night terrors aside, having a person who snores sharing a room with a light sleeper is a terrible combination.

Employers shouldn’t want their traveling employees to be exhausted. Even if they’re jerks who don’t care from a human perspective, they shouldn’t want it because it’s going to mean lower productivity and more mistakes. Providing reasonably private accommodations should be considered part of the cost of business travel, and if an employer can’t afford it, it might be that they can’t afford business travel, period.

That said, I come from nonprofits too and I get the desire to be frugal with travel expenses, and, yes, this does seem to be a thing in some fields (nonprofits and academia, in particular). But even in fields where this is routine, good employers make exceptions in situations like yours. The fact that your employer is refusing to accommodate a situation where one employee is screaming about blood and murder in the middle of the night is not a great sign about them as an employer in general.

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My Co-worker Has Night Terrors & We’re Sharing a Hotel Room!