Is it not better for an employee to nap for a few minutes than to suffer unproductively for an entire day?
The most sleep-deprived segment of the British population, according to a 2013 study by the UK Sleep Council, is 45- to 54-year-olds. More than a third of the study participants reported sleeping only five to six hours a night. This is attributable to a number of factors, one of which is that people in early middle age may be at a point in their careers when they feel they have to put in longer hours. Perhaps they are managers, juggling numerous responsibilities, or trying to pack in the hours and savings prior to retirement.
Physical factors probably play a part, too. Writing for the Financial Times (paywall), Simon Kuper describes early middle age as having fewer deep-sleep waves and being afflicted by "more body pain and weaker bladders," causing people to wake more frequently throughout the night, all of which disrupts one's ability to have a good night's sleep. Many women at this age are also dealing with menopausal symptoms. So even if one gets to bed at a reasonable hour, one might still struggle to get a full seven or eight hours of quality sleep.
The result is a workforce that is significantly less productive than it could -- and should -- be, not to mention a workday that is painful to endure. No matter what your colleagues say (or maybe what you tell yourself), it's unhealthy and unsustainable to survive on less than six hours of sleep per night. Neurologist Ying-Hui Fu of the University of California, San Francisco, estimates that fewer than 1 percent of the population are natural 'short-sleepers', requiring under six hours a night. If you do happen to fall into this rare category, it can be fabulous for your productivity, but if you're forcing it in any way, it can have the opposite effect. Kuper writes:
"From my long-gone office days, I dimly remember middle-aged colleagues wandering around in the post-lunch phase having desultory chats. The modern equivalent would be pointlessly spinning through websites because you’re too tired to produce. Exhaustion is surely one reason why salaries of American male college graduates peak at the age of 49. In old-style factories, your career ended when your back went; in today’s offices, perhaps it is when your sleep goes."
Kuper, who works from home and relies on two 20-minute naps each day, offers a simple solution to this problem of middle-aged workplace fatigue: Install beds in offices -- good ones, not just "a couple of sticky mattresses intended to replace rather than supplement the bed at home." Allow workers to leave their desks, take the short naps they need throughout the day, and return refreshed and rejuvenated to their work.
Fortunately, it doesn't take much to make a big difference. As Melissa Breyer wrote last year, 15- to 20-minute-long naps are considered to be most beneficial. These "increase alertness and concentration, improve mood, fine-tune motor skills. During this brief period you’re only entering the first two stages of sleep (light sleep), which makes it much easier to wake up and return to your day." It's easy to waste 20 minutes on social media, so why not use that time in such a way that you return to your duties as a creative powerhouse?
I suspect Arianna Huffington would agree with Kuper's prescription. In her 2016 book, The Sleep Revolution, which I'm reading now, she writes that many workers skip sleep in the name of productivity, which ironically ends up benefiting nobody:
"Our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the U.S. economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presentee-ism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused)... Almost a third of all UK employed reported feeling tired every morning [and] in Canada 26 percent of the workforce reported having called in sick because of sleep deprivation."
Kuper's idea hits the mark, but in order for this to work there also has to broader cultural acceptance of sleep as a respectable goal -- something that is no longer shunned, but rather regarded as a valuable lifestyle habit that's just as important as a healthy diet and exercise.