You're hard at work, eyes squinted at a sea of erratically moving numbers, doggedly typing away, but little by little that familiar, dreaded lethargic haze seeps over you. It's that time of day, and try as you might, you can't stay awake without several bitter cups of coffee, a red bull (or five), and on some days even caffeine pills. You would pay for some sleep right now.
Enter the capitalists
If necessity really is the mother of invention, the mushrooming domestic "sleep economy" indicates that modern-day Americans are a tired lot. The National Sleep Foundation reveals that the average American gets about 6.9 hours of sleep per night — not quite enough to function at an optimal level. Without some help that is.
"I came up with the idea for my company while working at Deutsche Bank in New York — I saw colleagues falling asleep at their desks and even sneaking off to the bathroom to take naps," says a rested looking Arshad Chowdhury, founder of New York based MetroNaps, a company that aims to enhance workplace productivity through enabling employees to nap in a futuristic looking device called the Energy Pod.
A pilot study during Chowdhury's MBA at Carnegie Mellon allowed the former analyst to deduce that offering well to do sleep-deprived execs the ability to barter some of their hard-earned money in exchange for a few much-needed winks was a golden opportunity. People would pay to nap.
Designed in conjunction with a Formula 1 builder, the EnergyPod is made of fiber glass, with a contoured bed surface ensuring that the knees are raised slightly above the heart to take the weight off the lower back. Bose noise-canceling headphones quietly emit melodiously soothing tunes to aid drifting off. A built in alarm is set and once nap time is up, lights and vibration serve as a gentle wake up call. Members pay $65 a month for an unlimited number of naps, while non-members pay $14 for 20 minutes in the Energy Pod.
There's a burgeoning market for sleep in the United States — both sleep aids and products that combat drowsiness — and in corporate circles, the relationship between being well rested and productive is slowly coming to the forefront. Chowdhury's company, while one amongst many, differentiates itself on the basis that it allows employees to nap within a noisy, bustling workplace in a device that is both compact and private enough to not require a separate room or space be set aside for napping.
Additionally, while Chowdhury acknowledges the mushrooming existence of other nap-related products, he underscores that MetroNaps offers not just the equipment to nap on, but also the tools, tracking devices and education to make those tools effective. Inbuilt tracking devices allow MetroNaps to monitor usage and provide clients with feedback. Installation includes educating employees about how the equipment works, as well as regarding the benefits of mid-day napping for work productivity through educational seminars.
A novel concept ... but how successful?
In May 2004, MetroNaps opened in the Empire State Building. Business was sluggish at first, and initially the company's sole source of business was from the clients in the building and from the surrounding areas who came to them.
Feedback from the trickle of visitors and enquiries from others too far away to make the trip, soon had Chowdhury experimenting with the idea of bringing naps to companies instead of waiting for the fatigued to come to him. A redesign of the pod in 2005 rendered it workplace appropriate. The new pod can be easily dismantled and reassembled for transportation purposes. A privacy visor was added to keep out light and sound, as were electronic built in timers to prevent oversleeping.
Judging from my own nap at the company's headquarters, the 31-year-old entrepreneur's change of direction was a smart move. Traveling miles to take a nap can seem questionable on its own, but failing to factor in the predictably tight security at the Empire State — after battling throngs of enthused tourists, having one’s bags thrust through a conveyor belt, and winding through numerous hallways to eventually arrive at an elevator that goes to the 22nd floor — could lead the weary to decide it isn’t worth it.
Chowdhury offers an added rationale for taking the pods into offices: the ability to nap is often contingent on a sense of comfort and familiarity with one's environment — "Like with meditation, you have to train yourself to nap" — which most likely explains my own inability to satisfactorily wind down in the dark, vaguely surreal space that houses the company's six in-house EnergyPods. Introducing the EnergyPod into the workplace would offer employees the ability to incorporate the Pod into their routine, and also offer them the chance to nap in the same spot everyday.
While MetroNaps still offers naps at its New York based center: between 50 to 100 customers come by in the course of a week, the primary focus has shifted to installing the Energy Pods, which retail for $12,400, in the workplace. The company has installed about 100 of these so far: clients are varied and include Procter & Gamble, Cisco, Stanford Medical Center, Carnegie Mellon, and the Jetsetter Spa at Miami International Airport. MetroNaps has retail centers across the world: in the US, UK, Australia, Germany and Denmark.
But will napping in the workplace really catch on?
Sleep is an act that has traditionally been relegated to the private sphere — definitely not something employers were supposed to get involved in. But as work hours get longer and employees spend more and more time in the office, the boundaries between private life and the workplace are increasingly blurred. With stronger links being established between productivity and rest, employees’ sleep routines are beginning to catch the interest of their employers.
"Colonizing the nap at work is part of a larger trend that is reconfiguring the once bounded relationships between home and work and public and private space and time," explain sociologists Vern Baxter and Steve Kroll-Smith. They explain that while napping at work was typically considered deviant behavior — a resistance against the management and a flouting of the rules — employers are increasingly encouraging employees to nap in the workplace and some could potentially even mandate it.
The consensus among experts in the area of sleep is that both anecdotal and empirical evidence indicate a strong relationship between being well-rested on the one hand, and optimally productive, creative, happy, analytical and physically fit on the other. Since the current structure of our society does not allow the average American enough sleep at night, Dr Helene Emsellem, author of "Snooze … or Lose" points out that people need to be creative — and napping is a good way to do this.
According to Bill Anthony, author of "The Art of Napping at Work," napping is slowly trending towards becoming more mainstream: "people often had to nap surreptitiously — in their cars or behind their desks. Now this is changing with a changing rationale: sleep is being seen not as a perk but as a productivity enhancer."
Sara Mednick, Assistant Professor at UCSD and author of "Take a Nap Change Your Life," supports this view: she believes that the cultural taboo that surrounds the idea of napping will gradually dissolve, just as the taboo that surrounded the notion of telecommuting in the 80s eventually disintegrated. Similar to the philosophy behind setting up gyms and cafeterias within office buildings so that employees can fulfill as many of their needs in house as possible, Mednick predicts that employers will increasingly recognize that onsite napping facilities can be beneficial to productivity levels.
There are those who disagree however. "Napping is not a viable solution ... Napping in the workplace is more of a quick fix to a larger problem," insists Nancy Shark, Executive Director of the Better Sleep Council. "Anyone looking to improve their daily work performance … can benefit by improving the quality of their sleep at night. Just like scheduling a meeting or dinner with friends, everyone should prioritize sleep as a part of their daily schedule."
Here to stick?
Whatever the health benefits of napping, it is undeniable that companies catering to a rising interest in sleep are fast cropping up. But is this interest just another trend?
Businesses like Chowdhury's hinge on the fact that it is not. "Fatigue is not a fad. For the past 30 years, Americans have been working longer hours and sleeping less. We are increasingly a sleep deprived nation," emphasizes Chowdhury. He maintains that due to the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry, people are developing an enhanced awareness regarding sleep deprivation — one that is here to stick around.
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