In London, I’d never take more than 30 minutes for my lunch, sometimes even choosing to eat a sandwich at my desk. It made the afternoon a bit of a slog at times – but it also meant I’d finish earlier.
In Spain, that was unthinkable. Like everyone else in the town, I had to leave for an extended lunch break (and sleep if I wanted to), returning to work a couple of hours later.
It took me time to adjust to this new way of life and work, with its very different feel to the ‘regular’ 9 to 5 that most western countries adhere to.
In this article, I’ll be taking a closer look at the siesta, and the benefits it can have for tired workers. I’ll also explore how perceptions around workday napping have changed in Spain, and how different variations of the traditional siesta are starting to be adopted in some modern workplaces.
A Spanish tradition
Traditionally, a siesta is a short nap taken in the afternoon; people normally take a siesta of 60 – 90 minutes after they’ve eaten lunch. Often, workers travel home during the day for a meal and a nap.
Siestas are most common in Mediterranean countries and, as a result of historic Spanish influence, many workers in the Philippines and much of South America also take a long afternoon break. Offices in these countries usually include their siesta break as part of their opening hours.
Siestas around the world
Although siestas are often associated with Spanish speaking countries, they’re common in other parts of the world too. For example, in Italy, a daytime nap similar to the siesta is known as a risposo.
And many Chinese workers settle down at their desks for a daily, hour long nap. This comes from an interpretation of article 43 of Chinese law. I’m not sure whether this is exactly what the government had in mind when they say people have a ‘right to rest,’ but workers now see this type of siesta as a fundamental right.
Japanese workers can enjoy an inemuri. This roughly translates as ‘to be present while asleep.’ Sleeping at work is a sign of dedication; it suggests that the worker has poured all their effort into their daily tasks.
Napping can be good for business
Workers in some Western countries (particularly in colder parts of Europe and North America) might have a negative opinion about siestas. Detractors sometimes see the siesta as evidence of laziness and an unprofessional attitude to work.
Sleep experts have also been known to advise against a nap during the day. In theory, daytime sleep can interrupt your natural circadian rhythm, making it harder to sleep at night.
However, researchers now think that napping shouldn’t be seen as a sign of poor sleep hygiene. Short naps (between 15 to 20 minutes long) have been shown to improve your cognitive functions for the rest of the working day.
The power of cat naps
Other researchers have explored the benefits of napping on memory. In a 2007 study in Germany, participants were given a list of words to remember. They then spent the next hour doing combinations of napping and distracting activities.
Some participants had a short nap, others had longer naps and some didn’t nap at all. After an hour, they were asked to tell the researchers which words they could remember.
The results showed that your memory improves after a nap, and that this improvement increases the longer you’re able to sleep. What’s really interesting is that a very short nap (just 6 minutes long) can significantly improve your memory. So perhaps these ultra short ‘cat naps’ could be a great way of introducing a memory boosting sleep into your working day.
Even if you’ve had a good night’s sleep, you could still benefit from a nap. They are potentially a low cost way for employers to improve their workers’ productivity.
The end of the siesta?
Even though daytime napping can be good for workers, the traditional siesta is under threat in Spain. The Spanish government is considering changes to working times that could spell the end for the siesta.
There may be advantages to taking a nap during the day, but there are also some practical drawbacks, some of which have a huge impact on people’s lives.
Long working day
In many Western countries, people work 8 hour days, normally between 9 am and 5 pm. The long siesta break means that Spanish workers’ 8 hour day ends at 7 or 8 pm.
The changes proposed by the Spanish government would reduce the number of hours people work. However, this would come at the expense of the long siesta break.
Long hours spent in the office has negative effects on social and economic aspects of Spanish peoples’ lives. It means that working parents can’t spend much time after work with their children. Workers also have less time in the evening for socialising and hobbies.
For parents, there’s a long gap between when school ends at 5 pm and when they can leave the office at 7 or 8 pm. This puts pressure on one parent to reduce their working hours, or for families to make other childcare arrangements.
While having a nap during the day can be great for individuals, it can be difficult if your colleagues and business contacts are all taking their siestas at different times. Imagine trying to organize an afternoon meeting when half the participants could be asleep.
The large gap in the middle of the day has a negative impact on workers’ productivity. Generally, it makes it difficult to get much work done after lunch time.
Spain’s long work day goes against current theories about worker productivity. For example, researchers in Sweden have recently argued that a shorter, 6 hour day offers a big boost to workers’ output.
Not sleeping enough at night
Even though the long workday was supposed to give Spanish workers the opportunity to take a siesta, this often doesn’t happen. Many people live too far away from home to travel back to sleep, so they use their siesta break for other activities.
Instead of napping, they use the opportunity to shop or to have a long lunch with friends and colleagues. By the time they get home and eat, it can be late in the evening. The siesta is thought to contribute to Spain’s famously late mealtimes (the evening meal can be as late as 10 or 11 pm).
These late meals push back bed times; this, coupled with a lack of sleep during the siesta break, means that workers are often really tired. This has led Spain to be described as ‘a nation of under-sleepers.’
Reinventing the daytime nap
The siesta may become a thing of the past in Spain; however, companies in North America and northern Europe are starting to explore the benefits of workday napping.
The consultancy firm McKinsey & Company have released a report on the effects of insufficient sleep on employees’ productivity. They note the costs of sleep deprivation and the benefits of short naps on alertness and performance.
Ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerrys are thought to be one of the first major companies to introduce a ‘nap room’ for hard working employees. They’ve been ahead of this trend for the last decade and feel that workday napping is good for business.
Google have adopted a high tech approach to workday napping. The company has installed napping pods in their California headquarters. EnergyPods allow employees to shut themselves off from the workplace, without the need to set aside a whole room for napping workers.
The recliners play relaxing music and gently wake workers up when it’s time for them to return to their desks. They’re not likely to find their way into many workplaces, though; each pod reportedly costs over $10,000.
So, companies are starting to recognise that sleeping on the job can be a good thing. Employees feel less tired during the day and they’re more productive, which helps a company’s bottom line.
The future of workday napping
So why is napping during the workday becoming more popular in some parts of the world, but under threat in Spain? Surely Spanish workers benefit from napping the same as everyone else?
I think one difference is in how workday napping has been implemented. I see the Spanish siesta as an ‘institutionalised nap;’ everyone’s expected to take time away from their desk at the same time to relax and sleep.
A society constructed around daytime sleeping has its drawbacks though. It has negative consequences for businesses, workers and families. What’s more, employees often don’t use their long break to sleep and recuperate.
Another important part of Spanish culture is eating the main meal of the day at lunchtime together. Sometimes, by the time the meal is finished, there isn’t much time left for sleep anyway.
More flexible breaks
A more flexible approach allows workers and employers to enjoy the benefits of a siesta without the negative effects experienced in Spain.
Companies that have introduced flexible workday napping allow the rest of the organisation to work while individuals take a quick break. This doesn’t lead to the company grinding to a halt, or employees working long hours to make up for their midday break.
Naps benefit employees and employers, but only if they’re a short and voluntary part of the working day. Even 6 minutes of shut eye away from your desk can improve your performance.
I think that the key to successful workday napping comes from a good dialogue with your employer; both you and they need to feel comfortable about taking a break and clearly set out limits and expectations.
In some offices I’ve worked in, bosses have set up a room for workers to nap. However, we all knew that they didn’t really want us to be away from our desks. As a result, no one used them, and workers didn’t experience the benefits of a workday nap.
While the Spanish siesta might not be the right approach for the modern workplace, with good communication and flexibility, workers in more companies could start to see the benefits of short, productivity boosting workday napping.