Dome-shaped nap rooms at the Beijing headquarters of Baidu, the Chinese internet company © Bloomberg

A few years ago, White & Case, the international law firm, was renovating its Washington DC office when some of its younger associates made a request for an amenity to be added to a proposed “wellness room” — sleep pods.

“One of the other desired features of our new office was improved coffee, so this probably got both ends of the spectrum,” says Francis Vasquez, a partner at the firm’s Washington office, which acquired two pods last year.

He says they have been well received by the 300 employees there, and they are used five to eight times a day. “From our perspective, it’s giving our people what they want. And happy employees make better employees, so we’re happy to make them happy.”

The sleep pods, which cost about $13,000 each, have been popping up in Silicon Valley for nearly a decade. MetroNaps, the New York-based company that makes the pods, counts among its other clients Nasa, the US space agency; Samsung, the technology group; JetBlue, the airline, and Zappos, the online clothing retailer.

“We have a number of IT companies — Google, Cisco — it’s a question of companies that are interested in attracting and retaining good-quality employees,” says Christopher Lindholst, MetroNaps’ chief executive. “We also have more traditional companies — [consultancies] PwC and KPMG, White & Case — it’s anyone out there competing for talent.”

The law firm’s investment in the pods reflects a growing trend in business, as sectors beyond technology, aviation and medicine, which have long had rules and initiatives around rest, focus on sleep as a part of their wellness programmes and efforts to improve productivity. These range from flashy gadgets to more mundane screening for sleep disorders.

A MetroNaps sleep pod in use at tech company Google’s head office in Mountain View, California © National Geographic/Alamy

“Until fairly recently, sleep wellness was missing from most wellness programmes — they tended to focus on diet, weight, exercise and smoking cessation. That’s been kind of unfortunate because of the major contribution that sleep makes to health and wellness,” says Lawrence Epstein, director of the sleep medicine fellowship programme at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

“More and more, we’re seeing how sleep disorders affect work productivity, healthcare costs and workplace accidents,” adds Epstein, a former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “The cost of insomnia in the US is estimated to be over $100bn when you add in reduced productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism [when employees are unproductive at work].”

Programmes that screen for sleep disorders have been shown to reduce healthcare costs and workplace accidents, and increase productivity, says Epstein. He cites a 2012 study by the Union Pacific Railroad Employes Health System, a pension and health fund manager, which found such a programme would save the organisation nearly $5m over two years. Union Pacific says it is “in the process of developing additional fitness-for-duty guidelines related to sleep disorders”.

Sleep disorders are increasing in prevalence, says Ana Krieger, medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She blames factors such as our attachment to smartphones and the increased stress of being constantly connected to the office.

For pilots or firefighters, whose errors can lead to loss of life, sleep disorders or disturbances are seen as critical, she says. “But where do you draw the line?” she asks. “When someone is working in finance and makes a bad decision because they are not well rested, and that leads to a company failing or an agreement failing and many people losing their jobs, what do you do then?”

29.6% of employees sleep less than 7 hours per night and lose an equivalent of 4.7 productive days per year

Source: VitalityHealth/Rand Europe; Britain’s Healthiest Workplace

Another problem is that people try to chip away at the hours they need to sleep — between six and nine hours a night for the average adult. “Biologically and physiologically, we obviously need to breathe, eat and sleep,” says Krieger. “Obviously it’s hard for us not to eat because we get hungry and breathing is more of a function that we don’t have voluntary control over, but we can easily try to steal time from sleep. The net result is that we are tired during the day.”

In Switzerland, global accounting firm PwC has a flexible working hours system — employees can arrive and leave early, take midday breaks and generally design their own workdays so long as they complete their tasks and work all of the hours they are paid for over the course of the year. It stresses the importance of rest to keep its employees from “stealing” those working hours from sleep.

Michaela Christian Gartmann, the firm’s human capital leader for Switzerland, says some of PwC’s bigger offices have sleeping rooms, but about two years ago it stepped up its efforts to persuade employees to use them when it launched a wellness programme focused on boosting employees’ energy. The idea, in part, was to remove some of the stigma “sleeping on the job” might have with some employees.

The firm “invited sleep experts to talk about good and bad habits, the importance of taking regular breaks and how a quick snooze can work wonders”, she says. The flexible working system also makes it “easier to visit this room than if you were in another working environment”.

But, she says, PwC has not yet tried to measure whether its napping rooms have boosted productivity. Speaking of the sleeping room in her premises, Gartmann says: “We have no quantifiable data. We have this room and people can use it or cannot use it. What we know is that when we launched our energy programme, this room was visited much more than before, and those people who go there on a regular basis, of course, love it.” 

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