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Should You Be Sleeping On The Job?

11 January 2017

"The Japanese don't sleep," Brigitte Steger reported last year for the BBC. Of course, it must be more complicated than that. What Steger was reporting on was the Japanese culture of inemuri: nemuri is the Japanese word for sleep and the I signifies being especially awake or present during an activity. Simple, right?

Inemuri means to be asleep while working, essentially to be taking a nap while being paid, ostensibly to be awake. "Napping is hardly ever discussed in historical sources," she writes and concludes that a lot of the negative connotations associated with a little worktime snooze may be written out of that cavern of ignorance. "Tiredness and illness are often viewed as the result of previous work efforts and diligence," Steger intuits. In many Japanese workplaces, she observed, employees will often publicly close their eyes in order to appear asleep and, thus, seem as though they were hard at work the night before.

"Most employers would say that an employee who is caught sleeping on the job will usually end up getting fired," Mary Kate Liffrig, a labor and employment law specialist, writes about Stateside practices, but maybe it's time to change this outmoded way of thinking. In Japan, Steger, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge and has written a book on inemuri, claims most employees and employers share the view that a lot of white collar job functions are simply not very important, a view that many Americans seem to share.

So, what is the argument for workplace napping? Steger reports:

"Even though the sleeper might be mentally 'away,' they [still] have to be able to return to the social situation at hand when active contribution is required. They also have to maintain the impression of fitting in with the dominant involvement by means of body posture, body language, dress code and the like […] meetings are usually long and often involve simply listening to…reports. The effort made to attend is often valued more than what is actually achieved."

Of course, Japanese society is hardly alone in embracing sleeping at more opportune times. A popular version of this can be found in siesta culture, the after-lunch nap that is common enough in Spain that the official workday often extends to 9 p.m. in order to take a two to three hour-long lunch break into account, a practice thought to originate from those hours being the hottest in the day, though the practice is less common among younger workers. In Greece, a study found that people who napped regularly "were significantly less likely to die of heart disease."

But inemuri culture is fascinatingly different. It particularly involves sleeping while actively employed and is more than just something to do at a boring job: people will fall asleep while shopping, in restaurants and, sometimes, on the streets. Inemuri, the New York Times reports, "has been practiced in Japan for at least 1,000 years." Sleeping publically is viewed, Steger says, as a form of multitasking.

Life Hack: attending a long dinner and need to catch some Zs?


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