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Nap to productivity

WHAT does US President Donald Trump have in common with the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher besides their affiliation to conservative political parties?

And what does PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi have in common with Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer other than the fact that they’re both female heads of major corporations?

The answer to both these questions is that they all get an average of four hours of sleep every night.

If you aren’t able to emulate these workaholics, don’t feel bad. It’s not just tenacity that allows them to do with so little sleep. Genetics has more than a little to do with it too.

According to Ying-Hui Fu, a biologist and human genetics professor at the University of California, San Francisco, about 90 per cent of the human population needs between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.

Fu, who has been studying the short-sleeping phenomenon since 1996, says that about three to five per cent of the population can make do with around 6.5 hours and less than one per cent can get by with less than four hours. Short sleepers are just born that way.

For the rest of us who belong in that 90 per cent bracket, insufficient sleep is nothing short of torture. All of us know how terrible it feels to be struggling to stay alert right after lunch; and how scary it is to be nodding off at the wheel after a long day at work.

It’s well-established that lack of sleep impacts our health in so many ways — our heart, immune system, metabolism and even fertility — but we don’t need scientific studies to convince us of that. We can literally feel how bad it is for our bodies whenever we don’t get enough sleep.

Similarly, experience tells us that lack of sleep also affects us mentally.

We’re less alert and have difficulty focusing because of it. But what may not be so obvious is just how badly it affects our ability to work.

Research has shown that people who get less than five hours of sleep for a few nights in a row have the equivalent of a 0.10 blood-alcohol level. To give you a sense of what that means, it’s considered a crime to drive in the US if your blood-alcohol level is 0.08!

There’s an economic effect to all this. According to a study published by RAND Europe last November, the lack of sleep among the American workforce costs the US economy approximately US$411 billion (about RM1.8 trillion)


The study, Why Sleep Matters — The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, is the first ever to quantify the economic impact of sleep deprivation.

“Our study shows that the effects from a lack of sleep are massive,” says its lead author, Marco Hafner.

“Sleep deprivation not only influences an individual’s health and wellbeing but has a significant impact on a nation’s economy, with lower productivity levels and a higher mortality risk among workers.”

That same month, Arianna Huffington — of Huffington Post fame — launched a new company called Thrive Global, which advocates the importance of proper sleep for increased productivity.

Huffington has long held a deep interest in the topic of sleep and even wrote a book about it entitled The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time.

She once fainted and fractured her cheekbone due to exhaustion.

Thrive Global will offer corporate workshops for companies that want their employees to have better sleep and thus be more productive.

It will also offer a digital platform for conversations to be held about the topic of sleep and will sell products that help you sleep better.

But getting a good night’s rest is still not enough to foster optimal productivity in workers. Even if you get your eight hours, you’ll still feel drowsy at different times during the day.

That’s because our bodies go through 90-minute cycles where we drift from a state of alertness at the start of the cycle to a drowsy phase at the end of the cycle.

What we tend to do to combat the sleepy phase is go to the washroom to splash water on our faces or drink cups of coffee to help us stay awake.

These things help somewhat but they don’t remove the fatigue our bodies feel.

Author and sleep advocate Tony Schwartz may be on to something with his 4½-hour days, split into three 90-minute sessions.

He says when he first started writing books, he’d write for up to 10 hours a day and it would normally take him about a year to complete a book.

Recently though, he began writing in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions, with a break after each one.

By writing only 4½ hours per day, he was able to complete his last two books in less than six months each.

It’s clear that those breaks in between his sessions significantly enhanced his productivity.


Imagine if companies started employing this concept and allow employees regular breaks where they can take a nap if they want to.

Actually, some progressive companies in the US are already recognising the value of naps. Uber has nap rooms at its headquarters. Google has nap pods. But it’s not just new economy companies that are recognising the value of power naps. You might be surprised to hear that PricewaterhouseCoopers has nap pods too.

Although it might be counter-intuitive for companies to encourage their workers to take naps in the office, studies have conclusively shown that it does lead to improved performance.

When night-shift air traffic controllers were allowed to take naps when they were too tired, they ended up performing much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time compared to those who weren’t allowed to take naps.

In Malaysia, some companies are starting to warm up to corporate wellness programmes.

I know of two people who conduct workshops and trainings on this topic and they tell me the uptake is very promising. More and more companies realise they have to do this in order to get the most out of their employees.

But for these companies, the focus is more on nutrition, exercise and relaxation. Napping is a much harder sell and requires a huge mindset change on the part of management.

Even in the US, only about five per cent of corporations have a policy allowing workers to take naps during working hours.

Well, if we can’t look to the US for guidance on this matter perhaps we should look East — to Taiwan where it’s not unusual for workers to pull out pillows to take a short nap right after lunch.

Imagine your employer allowing you to sleep after a hearty banana leaf lunch. I guess you could call it a dream job.

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