The science of sleeping at work

By Thursday, August 28, 2014 0 No tags Permalink

In a perfect world, you’d like to think that during the course of a normal working week, you split your time evenly in thirds: one third on the job, one third as you please and one third getting enough sleep to regenerate for the next day.

The maths looks pretty good. Eight hours of work, eight hours of play and eight hours of sleep makes 24 and the equation is very much in keeping with your average 9-5 and suggestions of how much sleep we ought to be getting.

Let’s just imagine that we all get this even split – something that’s patently untrue for most people because of social pressures, family pressures, high octane working environments and all the rest. Is that all there is to it? Probably not.

The afternoon lull

In fact, in terms of brain activity, our waking and sleeping lives are not cut into such large chunks. It’s far more likely that we are able to concentrate on work for, say, three or four hours before we need to shut off for a while. That’s meant to happen at lunch time, but in practice it doesn’t. Our minds are still too active, partly because so many of us work through lunch to stay on track.

As a result, a sense of dullness ambushes us in the afternoon. We keep at it but there’s something wrong. We’re no longer as creative as we were in the morning. We’re no longer as committed to the task at hand. It’s tempting to think that urge to drop off for a spell means we’ve overeaten at lunch or last night’s glass of wine was a mistake, when in fact it’s physiological.

Scientists are learning more about sleep and one of the things they are looking at is the problem of reduced brain activity in the afternoons. Their suggestion? A 30 to 40 minute nap.

Culture and business

For many, the science just proves what they already suspected was the case. Without the chance to get a nap, too many people just can’t sustain high levels of creativity and diligence in the afternoons. Their work suffers until the next morning when their minds are fresh.

In other parts of the world, it’s not uncommon for people to make time for sleep in the afternoons. That’s where the famous siesta comes from. It’s got nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with listening to the needs of the body.

So what does that mean for modern businesses? Forward-thinking companies are much better off supplying their employees with everything they need to make the most of their talents. That doesn’t necessarily stop at technology or software or comfortable offices. It may go on to include areas where people can get some shut-eye on a mattress or a quiet room in order to return refreshed and ready for action in the afternoons.

Productivity and morale

Creative agencies and web companies often lead the way on this sort of thing. These are the places you are most likely to find sleeping pods or dark rooms kitted out with comfy beds where people can legitimately give in to the post-lunch lull. But where the digital sphere leads, the rest should be tempted to follow.

It’ll be difficult to convince other businesses to listen to the latest research on sleep and its relationship to work – especially in sectors like finance, education, manufacturing and service industries – but the benefits in terms of productivity and staff morale could be enormous.

Going back to that all-important work-play-sleep split, transferring a bit of shut-eye from night time to the afternoon could also be the key to a better work-life balance, giving people enough energy and alertness to make the best of their own time as well as their employers’ time.

Is it time to start campaigning for dedicated times for napping in your workplace? Ask your employer if they’ve read up on the science. If they don’t seem convinced, just get them to sleep on it.

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