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June 22, 2012 4:52 pm
A few years ago, I returned to work after having my first child, and found myself taking surreptitious trips to the washrooms. The reason? Back then, as the mother of a teething baby, I was often severely sleep deprived. So, in a desperate attempt to keep my mind alert, I would sometimes sneak into the bathroom stalls, where I would doze for a few minutes on the cold linoleum floor.
It was not a particularly comfortable or dignified place to nap but I felt embarrassed telling my colleagues that I needed sleep and could not find anywhere else discreet. And those secret minutes were surprisingly effective at recharging me – even on the cold floor.
But is it time for us all to rethink those attitudes towards napping – at work, or anywhere else? That is a question I have been pondering in recent days, after I attended the Elly awards in New York at which Arianna Huffington, creator of The Huffington Post, was honoured.
In recent years, Huffington has shot into the public eye by savvily promoting the cause of blogging (and, of course, her own website). But these days there is another cause that makes her almost as evangelical: sleep. In particular, Huffington thinks that shut-eye is now a crucial “feminist” issue, because many women are so exhausted they cannot function properly. If women want to get to the top, they need literally to “sleep their way” there, she says. And it is not necessarily a gender issue; in today’s pressurised world many men are also failing to get the 7.5 hours or so that doctors think typical adults require.
So, to turn words into action, Huffington has taken a novel step: her new New York offices now feature special rooms with beds, where staff are permitted – if not encouraged – to nip off during the working day and snooze. This, Huffington insists, will make them all much more productive; and possibly happier to boot. And, as a result, it should also make them better journalists – or so the theory goes.
Now, viewed from the outside, it is hard to tell whether the reality matches this bold hype. Unsurprisingly, Huffington is wildly enthusiastic about the merits of her scheme and some of her staff say it has been very useful. Others, however, grumble that the existence of these sleeping rooms merely encourages staff to spend even longer in the office, with lengthier work days. And there are rumours afoot that some couples have used the sleeping pods for more than sleeping (a suggestion that Huffington acknowledges with a knowing giggle, and a wry comment that she welcomes “anything that helps people feel refreshed”).
But, tokenism or not, the Huffington experiment is certainly fascinating, not least because it helps to challenge some of our wider ideas about sleep. These days in the west, most people have a strong idea of what the “ideal” pattern of sleep should look like: an extended spell in a bed, lasting perhaps seven hours, in one concentrated night-time burst. If you fail to get at least some of this, there is apt to be a nagging sense of unease; sleeping in the office – whether on a washroom floor or couch – is considered to be odd. Little wonder, then, that most Americans view the idea of having a Spanish-style siesta with suspicion; it is seen as somehow “soft”.
But as medical anthropologists have long known, sleep patterns are shaped by both culture and biology. Although humans generally need between five and eight hours during a 24-hour cycle, societies differ about how this occurs. The Spanish have – or used to have – their afternoon siestas. However, some hunter-gatherer communities (like new mothers) sleep in repeated bursts during that 24-hour cycle. More interesting still, the historian Roger Ekirch has done some fascinating research which suggests that before the advent of artificial light in the industrial revolution, humans typically slept in two phases: after dark, they slept for a few hours, but then woke to engage in some activities – before later retiring again for a “second sleep”. And some medical researchers and historians think that this segmented pattern might actually be more beneficial than the modern “consolidated” – or “monophasic” – ideal of seven straight hours, or the model which is now championed by western doctors or self-help books.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that Huffington’s sleeping-room idea will ever fly in a wider sense. Although some Silicon Valley tech companies seem to have similar schemes, most businesses view the concept of napping with some suspicion in workaholic America. But to my mind, at least, that is a shame: as Ekirch’s work shows, our sleep “norms” are shaped by culture, and can shift over time. Undoubtedly, most of us need more sleep. But in a hyperactive, modern world perhaps we also need to adapt: it is time for more companies and workers alike to openly embrace the nap. Particularly if it can be indulged in a Huffington-style bed – and not on an office sofa, desk or bathroom floor.
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