photo of a man taking a siesta on a benchDo you live in a country where a long siesta in the middle of the day is the norm? Can you take quick naps at work to recharge your mental batteries?

Do you think a good rest can make you more productive, or would you rather just get on with it and finish earlier?

These are interesting questions, and ones that both workers and experts have debated for years.

Although the siesta was once all about avoiding working during extreme heat, some researchers are keen to explore other benefits.

In this article, I’ll be looking more closely at the pros and cons of daytime naps, and how they might be better for you than once thought.

Lunch in England and Spain

I moved to a small town in the south of Spain several years ago. And the change to my work hours was as much of a shock as the scorching weather.

In England, I never took more than 30 minutes for lunch. Sometimes I’d just eat a sandwich at my desk and keep working. It made the afternoon a bit of a slog – but it also meant I’d finish earlier.

In Spain, that was unthinkable. Like everyone else in Utrera, I had to leave for an extended lunch break, and return 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 I was used to.

Siestas around the world

sign saying 'sorry we are closed'Traditionally, a siesta is a short nap taken in the afternoon. People might take a siesta of 60 – 90 minutes after they’ve eaten lunch. Unless they work too far away from home, of course.

Although siestas are often associated with Spanish speaking countries, they’re common in other parts of the world too.

In Italy, for example, a daytime nap similar to the siesta is known as a risposo.

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 energy into their daily tasks.

Is napping 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 or 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, some researchers think that napping might have worthy benefits.

Short naps (between 15 to 20 minutes long) have been shown to improve your cognitive functions for the rest of the working day:

Particularly, a brief (that is, 15 to 20 minutes) nap improves waking function and is ideal for employees, given the limited opportunity for napping in the workplace.

The power of cat naps

Other researchers have explored the benefits of napping for memory. In a study in Germany, participants were given a list of words to remember.

Some participants then 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 memory improves after a nap. And that the improvement increases the longer you’re able to sleep.

What’s really interesting is that a very short nap (just 6 minutes long) was found to significantly improve memory.

So perhaps these ultra-short ‘cat naps’ could be a great way of introducing a memory-boosting sleep into your working day.

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 practical drawbacks, some of which have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Too long a working day?

In many Western countries, people typically work 8 hour days, normally between 9 am and 5 pm.

The long siesta break means that the working day in Spain ends at 7 or 8 pm for many people – sometimes even later.

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.

Not enough family time

Long hours spent in the office has negative effects on social and economic aspects of Spanish people’s 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 socializing and hobbies.

For parents, there’s a long gap between when school ends 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.

Worker productivity

While having a nap during the day can be great for individuals, what if your colleagues and business contacts all take 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.

So 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 bedtimes. So along with a lack of sleep during the siesta break, that means that workers are often sleep deprived. This has led Spain to be described as ‘a nation of under-sleepers.’

Reinventing the daytime nap

illustration of a man sleeping at workThe siesta may be under threat in Spain. However, companies in North America and northern Europe are starting to explore the benefits of workday napping.

The consultancy firm McKinsey & Company 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.

Nap rooms and pods in the workplace

Ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerrys are thought to be one of the first major companies to introduce a nap room for 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.

The relaxing recliner pods play calming music and gently wake workers up when it’s time for them to return to their desks.

So, companies are starting to recognize 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. Perhaps the Spanish siesta is too much of an institutionalized nap.

Everyone is expected to take time away from their desk at the same time. But employees don’t always use that time to sleep, so their day away from home just becomes even longer.

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

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 the key to successful workday napping lies in having 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.

But perhaps with better communication and flexibility, workers in more companies could start to see the benefits of the right kind of productivity-boosting rests at work.

Your views

Do you have a siesta or naps at work? Do you feel it’s beneficial to you and your employer?

Do you think it’s something that should be implemented in your workplace?

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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