Articles, Lifestyle, Markus Jaaskelainen
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A Workday Siesta


In Australian business culture, we’re used to getting up at the crack of dawn and working long hours. Proof of our dedication to early mornings and long work days is the tradition of ‘breakfast networking’, which usually starts at 7am. And yet, despite waking up so early, we work all through the day until late at night and become increasingly sleep-deprived in the process. Should we perhaps take a cue from the Mediterranean countries where the Siestathe combined midday lunch and nap—has been part of the national psyche for hundreds of years?

According to CQ University’s Professor Drew Dawson—author of the nation’s largest study into Australian sleeping habits with over 13,000 respondents—the main reason for our stubborn refusal to sleep are gadgets with screens, such as iPhones and tablet computers, that we take to bed with us.

Staring at the light shining from iGadgets until late at night tells our brains that it’s still the day. As a consequence, we find it difficult to fall asleep and end up staying awake when we should be sleeping.

“What used to be the bedroom,” says Professor Dawson, “is now a room that happens to have a bed in it.”

Dawson’s study found that 30% of his respondents had called in sick due to insufficient sleep. 96% of the study participants felt tired when they woke up and 40% had actually fallen asleep during the workday.

So, if the figures are this serious is there anything that can be done?

A solution could perhaps be the Siesta. This afternoon rest—which has derived its name from the Latin term Hora Sexta, the sixth hour—is usually enjoyed at noon, six hours after dawn. The Siesta traditionally begins with a leisurely lunch which turns into a delicious nap. To enjoy the traditional Siesta, you would wear your pyjamas and hop into bed. Nowadays, however, it’s more common to sleep on a sofa or in an armchair, fully dressed, and the time spent at Siesta has itself decreased.

Indeed, the tradition of Siesta is not without its detractors in Spain. Not everyone takes the time to rest in the afternoon, and, for a lot of workers, the extra hours spent during the Siesta are away from the time they could be spending at home, with their families. There is also growing pressure from government and big business to conform the Spanish work-life to the Northern European model where workdays last, more or less strictly, from 9am to 5pm.

However, it would be a shame if Spain and other Mediterranean countries completely did away with the Siesta. There are numerous health benefits to napping in the afternoon—not to mention the increase in productivity.

A NASA study from 1995 found that a 26–minute nap during the workday “improved performance 34% and alertness 54%.” Prompted by the study, and forced to take action by occurrences of employees falling asleep at work, the Federal Aviation Association in the US now recommend that air traffic controllers take short naps during the day to stay alert.

The Siesta—or plain old napping—has also been associated with a 37% reduction in coronary mortality. In countries like Spain, Italy and Greece, where afternoon napping is a way of life, there are fewer incidents of heart disease. A study conducted by the University of Athens in Greece found that workers who took regular naps during the workday were 64% less likely to die of heart disease than those workers that did no napping.

In addition to cardiovascular benefits, napping raises the general mood, revitalises the mind, reduces stress and anxiety, and makes us more alert and thus better communicators and negotiators. On our roads, and in other traffic, where accidental nodding-off will too-often result in deaths and injuries, wakefulness is literally a matter of life and death. Approximately 20–30% of all accidents on Australian roads are due to driver fatigue. Many of these accidents would no doubt have been avoided with a different attitude to rest-worklife balance.

Some might argue, however, that, as business owners, we have no choice but to push through the workdays conforming to the 9am to 5pm (or 9pm in reality!) workday routine our nation—and indeed our clients—expect. After all, our competitors do, and work is not known to run out if you keep the cogs turning continuously.

As true as this may be, we don’t have to become Spaniards in our habits to avail ourselves of the concept of the Siesta. The current studies recommend that the length of the afternoon nap be kept between 20 and 30 minutes. When the naps are kept this short we can avoid falling into deeper stages of sleep from which it is much harder to wake up.

We have only to look at Japan as a warning example if nothing is done and the current trend of long work hours and decreased sleep continues unabated. In Japan there is a term, karoshi, for deaths resulting from work-induced exhaustion. As language changes with changes in society, we can be grateful that the English language doesn’t have stronger words than burnout and exhaustion to describe the results of overwork.

And yet, according to Professor Dawson, Australian’s are at “an increased risk of diabetes and, what have been called, lifestyle-related illnesses.”

“If you don’t get enough sleep then you can have accidents or injuries in the workplace, but in the last couple of years we’ve started to see a link emerge between reduced sleep and carbohydrate metabolism,” says Professor Dawson. Lack of sleep affects our hormones and makes us resort to quick energy sources such as fats and carbohydrates. As a result, we are becoming more and more obese and prone to contracting diabetes.

To be healthier and more efficient we should be sleeping more during the night, and also take a Siesta or a power nap in the afternoon.

Napping does not need to be something shameful. Some of the sharpest minds in history have made occasional short sleeps a way of life—as evidenced by Leonardo da Vinci, whose advice we would all do well to follow: “It is also a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation; for when you come back to the work, your judgement will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgement.”

further reading

Aussies sleep deprived

Siesta Awareness – Siesta Facts

The amazing 26-minute NASA power nap

Who, What, Why: How long is the ideal nap?

The importance of sleep: the dangers of driver fatigue

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