“Sleeping off the job”—or what I’ll call “off(ice) napping” (my meld of “office napping” and hockey player “off-ice” time)—should include more than sleeping at home on the train commute home or on a grassy knoll in the park across from your office during a lunch break.

It should also include sleeping at your work site, like the naps these Chinese workers are taking on an onsite grassy ocean-side knoll in Haikou, Hainan Island’s largest northernmost city—a tourist springboard to bluer beaches, such as famed Yalong Beach, at the island’s southernmost shores.

Whether their boots are for working at, on, next to or in the sea, these ladies appear to be sleeping at the job, but while off work, i.e., “sleeping off the job”, rather than “sleeping on the job”, which not only sounds worse, but also is worse, since it can get you canned, if you are not paid as a guinea pig in sleep experiments.

Moreover, “sleeping off the job” is aptly analogous to “sleeping off a bar binge”,  both suggesting recovery as well as the responsible venue, just as “off(ice) nap” does.

The Case for Off(ice) Naps

Although many countries, such as Mexico and China, have traditions and policies that encourage workplace napping on breaks, and despite reported health benefits of midday naps, e.g., a 37% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiac failure and death, the institutionalization of off(ice) naps in the West lags far behind its establishment in other countries and cultures. Nonetheless, that health benefit seems to be enough of a reason to allow, and perhaps encourage, off(ice) naps.

But there are more good reasons for napping off the job: In a 2009 Seidman Business Review article, “A Case for Naps in the Workplace”, Jitendra M. Mishra suggests that napping is a natural low-cost way to increase worker productivity.

Despite widespread resistance to the idea, Mishra maintains that ”the concept of napping is going through a slow evolution because of the concerns about the ‘bottom line’, reduced productivity, and profits due to sleep deprivation”, which is estimated to cost U.S. businesses $18 billion annually.

This reassessment of a place for off(ice) naps is timely, given evidence that Mishra cites suggesting that “sleepy workers are dangerous, less productive, and a major source of increased health care costs and corporate liability.”

As particularly dramatic examples of the dire consequences of sleep deprivation, Mishra notes that disasters such as Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Exxon Valdez were all associated with workers suffering from a lack of normal sleep.

However, Mishra points out that, despite strong traditions in China, India, Italy, Greece, North Africa and Latin America, and accumulating evidence supporting the case for off(ice) naps, less than one percent of companies allow employees to a nap on the job.

(Perhaps a good night’s sleep or off(ice) naps would help some of them have a (re)fresh(ed) perspective about the benefits of such naps.)

Nonetheless, to the extent that it has been implemented, Mishra reports that workplace napping is producing very positive results:

“In Australia, workplaces allow naps for firemen, truck drivers, doctors, and interns. It is interesting to note that David Johnson, managing director of Deloittle Consulting Companyin Pittsburg, feels his company has increased productivity due to a ‘nap-room.’ ‘They love it, they lap it up.’ (O’Connor, 2004) Craig Yarde, President of Yarde Metals, feels that napping contributes to higher sales, higher productivity, efficiency, and reduced turnovers. Anthony and Camille of Boston University conducted a survey and found that 70% of the1,000 respondents admitted that they nap at work and it benefits them. Gould Evansinstalled 10 by 12- foot ‘nap rooms’ and according to its spokesperson, there is no stigma attached to those using it.Workers at Gould Evans found that napping helps them getrefreshed and revitalized (Meyer 2001).”

“Inemuri”: the Japanese Semi-Sleep

When other workplace cultures are a fusion of traditional folk and modern office ways, the nap may take a peculiar compromise form, blending the custom of naps with taboos against them. For example, the Japanese recognize and practice a hybrid of sleeping off the job and sleeping on the job, which they call “inemuri“—“to be asleep while present”. The rules governing inemuri (pronounced “eee-neh-moo-ree”) are strict:

  • You have to remain upright, e.g., you can’t rest your face on your keyboard—a rule designed to preserve the appearance of engagement.
  • Your company rank has to be very high (or, less commonly observed in my experience during my years in Japan, very low).

My own firsthand experience in formal meetings confirms these rules.  On one occasion, while I was the Director of International Studies at a Japanese women’s college, the “rijicho” (pronounced “ree-jee-choh”)—the top corporate boss, who had flown in from Tokyo—was presiding over and speaking at a meeting for all key personnel. At some point during his talk, one of the attendees immediately to his right, but at ninety degrees to him (as befitting the highest-ranking subordinate), appeared to nod off, eyes shut as tight as the seams of a fried dumpling.

Although the staff member was a full professor of the highest rank, I was puzzled, indeed, amazed, that he would do that and that no one tried to nudge him—especially since he was seated right beside the boss (who was generally, and rightly, feared by all employees).

When I whispered my puzzlement to a colleague at my side, he, also discreetly whispering, told me that such apparent napping is in fact a “sign of great respect”, indicative of deep concentration and appreciation of the rijicho’s deep and important ideas.

Yes, he really said that—even if it was only to help the professor save (napping) face. Anyway, no one else—including the rijicho—responded in any way to the napper.

Although I didn’t buy the explanation at all, I could see that general acceptance of such a cover story would be essential to the successful institutionalization of inemuri.

Following that logic, the deeper the boss’s ideas, the deeper the sleep should be, with the full comatose sprawl like that of the Chinese ocean-side women being the ultimate form of profound homage and respect.

Ironically, in their full sprawl, those Chinese workers were apparently more alert than the Japanese professor appeared to be (despite the dubious “concentration” claim made on his behalf). Rather than being poster children for the world’s exhausted, bone-weary laborers, some of those women were not only awake, but cheerily humming under their work hats (which probably make great resonance chambers for on-the-job karaoke).

The Case for Leaving Work Earlier

One argument against sleeping off (or semi-on) the job—ironically aimed at precisely the same Japanese culture that encourages it—was offered by a foreigner working in Japan, as a comment about how Japanese office workers will stay much longer than necessary, if only because they slack-off a lot during the work day and because leaving first is considered a sign of insufficient diligence and respect for colleagues or the boss: “My co-workers don’t need to work the hours they do. If everyone left for home earlier, then the hour nap before lunch wouldn’t be needed, the newspaper could be read at home, or the chat could be done in the more pleasant surrounding(s) of a coffee shop.”

The pressure to not leave first or before others, especially to not leave before the boss was enormous in the offices in which I worked. The ritualization of this norm is encapsulated in the rigidly prescribed verbal exchange between anyone who dares to leave prematurely: “O-saki ni, shitsurei shimasu” (“Leaving before you, I am very rude.”)—to which the scripted reply is always “O-tsukaresama.” (“You are/must be very tired.”)

That ritual was tedious and tiresome enough for me to want to close my eyes (and ears) for some well-deserved inemuri—which, however, would probably have backfired on me.

My Japanese colleagues would probably have interpreted that as deep meditation on and respect for the ritual and its rules.


Note: This is one in a series of articles by Michael Moffa, written while on the road, on the scene and on the job in China, autumn 2012.

Photo: Michael Moffa

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