BBC Capital

Asleep on the job: Grabbing forty winks at work

Snoozing at work is positively encouraged at some firms (Thinkstock)

Snoozing at work is positively encouraged at some firms (Thinkstock)

Getting a bit drowsy at work? You’re in luck. Previously taboo, sleeping in the workplace is becoming much more acceptable.

With an increasing number of companies encouraging their employees to doze off during the workday, fewer have to duck under the desk like George Constanza in the popular US comedy Seinfeld. Some firms even offer dreamy amenities such as state-of-the-art nap pods, darkened, Zen-like snooze rooms, and ostrich-feather pillows.

“The outlook on naps in the workplace is changing,” said Lisa Orndorff, employee relations/engagement and Global HR manager at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia. According to the 2013 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey, 6% of employers provide on-site nap rooms for employees, up from 5% in 2008.

That change, Orndorff thinks, is caused and exemplified by high-profile leaders such as author and news website editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington. Huffington has had nap-rooms set up in the offices of media company Huffington Post so employees can have a micro-sleep, and she writes and speaks regularly on the topic.

Another workplace nap evangelist is the chief executive officer of software company HubSpot, Brian Halligan, who has described himself as a “huge nap guy”. Google’s Vice President of Real Estate and Workplace Services, David Radcliffe, has said, “No workplace is complete without a nap pod.”

Huffington Post, HubSpot and Google are just a few of the US big-name companies now providing sleeping facilities for their employees, but finding these amenities is also becoming more common in companies around the globe, as well as at smaller firms.

MetroNaps, which counts Google as a client, has offices in the US, Europe and Australia and has installed its nap pods across those continents and Asia for companies in a range of industries, according to CEO Christopher Lindholst. “More and more employers acknowledge the importance of a short midday nap and offer their employees rest facilities,” he said. “Research has conclusively shown, and continues to do so, not only health, but also productivity benefits for power-nappers.”

Evidence that napping helps improve alertness, mood and performance has helped to chip away at the stigma long associated with mid-day dozes, said Lindholst. For example, sleep loss costs US businesses $63 billion in lost productivity, according to a September 2011 study published in the journal Sleep.

Culture shift

Company culture began considering employee well-being about a decade ago, by stocking the cafeteria with healthy food options or bringing in fitness instructors. Sleep, however, was left out of the equation, said Nancy H Rothstein, who consults and lectures on the topic of sleep wellness to Fortune 500 companies. Proper rest is a “risk management issue”, she said. “I am hearing from more and more companies who are recognising that sleep may be a missing link to their success,” she said.

As a result, more employers are looking for sleep solutions. Normalising napping is one method. “Investing in sleep provides faster returns on investment in terms of employee health and productivity,” Lindholst said, comparing it with nutrition and exercise. “Think about it like this: if I don’t exercise today, or if I don’t eat well, I can still come to work tomorrow. But if I get a bad night’s sleep my ability to get things done will be severely restrained.”

The Burlington, Vermont, headquarters of ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s has had a nap room for about the past 10 years. “The room itself is really part of the larger corporate culture here and company’s belief that a happy employee is a productive employee,” said spokeswoman Liz Stewart.

Benefits

Even after a solid night’s sleep, research shows many people could benefit from a daytime doze to recharge. Because of circadian rhythms, it’s natural to want one, according to a Harvard Medical School newsletter.

Naps are the “the no-cost, no-sweat way to improve performance and mood,” said Professor Emeritus at Boston University William Anthony, who has authored books on napping.  

Anthony suggests promoting a simple policy: “If you nap at the workplace, you’re not in danger of losing your job or reputation.” While an office might not have the funds to install a row of MetroNaps’ EnergyPods at more than $10,000 per unit, just sanctioning napping in the workplace can make a significant difference. Employees and bosses should feel comfortable taking a snooze break during allotted break times, like the lunch hour, Anthony advocates.

In some cultures, workday naps have always been viewed as crucial to productivity. Napping is required in some Asian-based companies, said Orndorff. In Japan, the custom inemuri, which means “to be asleep while present”, makes it permissible and actually positive to sleep while at work: it indicates the sleeper is committed to his or her job. Mediterranean and Latin cultures also have a tradition of midday breaks or siestas.

Cultures where workday naps are not common would do well to learn from those where it is. In today’s global workplace, professionals must connect with colleagues in multiple timezones and at all times of day. This round-the-clock workday, Rothstein says, makes prioritising sleep more important now than ever.