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19 July 2016

Nap pods: unproductive gimmick, or a lifeline for increasingly sleep-deprived workers?

The napping industry is booming in cities and offices. But is it actually good for our health and productivity?

By Jessica Brown

Humans have been doing it since the beginning of our existence, yet the topic of sleep is still one of division and debate. But one thing’s for certain: the business of sleep deprivation is booming.

Forget sleep apps and medication. Now, offices around the world, including Nike, Google and Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in the US, are beginning to challenge the stigma of being tired at work by allowing employees to have a quick nap when they feel the urge.

According to the first nap-pod entrepreneurs, these futuristic-looking beds have been installed in hundreds of offices around the world over the past few years. 

And the UK is starting to catch on; a consultancy firm in Manchester has even installed an actual bed in its office.

But being open about our napping needs isn’t confined to the office. Until recently, Londoners could treat themselves to some on-the-go shut-eye at a “nap space” pop-up in Shoreditch, where Eve Sleep offered tired Londoners a go on their power-nap pods.

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“We realised that a massive number of Londoners were venting about a lack of sleep. They said they weren’t getting enough sleep, which was leading to a massive decrease in productivity,” Kuba Wieczorek, its co-founder, tells me.

He says Eve is now looking to install a nap pod in its own office, and the pop-up has caught the attention of other businesses who are interested in rolling out the idea in their workspaces.

But while nodding off at our desk would still lead to an awkward meeting with human resources for the majority of us, sleep expert Neil Stanley tells me we’re getting less of it. 

“We’re more tired now, and more aware of tiredness,” he says. “Before, it wasn’t hard to get sleep. Bars would close at 10pm. But now there’s a culture of late nights, so we’re getting less sleep.”

We used to work in physically demanding jobs, go to bed when it was dark and wake up when it was light. Now, we fall asleep sending an email to our boss after downing the three espressos needed to get through a day of sitting still and staring at a computer screen. No wonder we need a lie-down come three o’ clock.

So it’s hardly surprising the number of Brits sleeping for just five or six hours per night has risen “dramatically” in recent years to more than a third of us, according to the Great British Bedtime Report.

The longer hours we’re working contribute to this. The number of people putting in more than 48 hours per week has risen by 15 per cent since 2010, analysis by the Trades Union Congress found last year.

Sleep expert Dr Fiona Kerr tells me this is not good news for our sleeping patterns. “Organisations are hooked on the idea of the efficiency of email and having people on tap 24 hours a day, but that has a number of negative impacts on the workplace,” she says.

“There is even a lessening of sleep quality as the need to always be ‘on’ can create a state called hypervigilance, which disturbs sleep cycles.”

But nap pods are not such a no-brainer for the handful of small business owners I speak to, who fear that staff would waste too much time napping, or wake up groggy.

One calls nap pods an “office gimmick”, but is not against allowing colleagues to nap on a (more humble) sofa. They say we should think of napping in the same way as allowing workers to take cigarette breaks.

I speak to the owner of a tea company, who, unsurprisingly, favours tea breaks over napping: “I would be more inclined to encourage people to take a proper tea break, spend the time to enjoy a really good cup of tea and then get back to work.”

A restaurant owner tells me she would worry she’d be taken advantage of by her staff if she were to allow napping on the job.

Stanley agrees: “You wouldn’t turn up to work drunk and expect them to look after you. If you’d been out all night, why would the company pay for it?”

But with the line between home and work becoming ever more blurred – an office isn’t an office these days without a pool table, on-site bar and gym  – perhaps nap pods are a natural progression towards the complete work/life merger.

But Dr Kerr says it’s not that simple. We’ll need to completely re-evaluate how we think about napping, and stop associating napping with laziness, she warns. 

“The main thing to shift is having a culture which respects, values and also promotes napping – which then allows people to curl up on or under their desk – as I have.”

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