We have reached that time of the year. December holidays are around the corner, employees want to make the most of the upcoming break and now is the time to pull out all the stops to ensure that company and client needs are met before the festive season begins.

As a result, it is not uncommon for employees to put in extra hours and take on additional work to ensure that everything gets done. But just how productive are employees when they are overworked and sleep-deprived? A large American study conducted in 2010 observed over 4000 workers at four large corporations. Participants with insomnia or insufficient sleep experienced the steepest productivity losses, spending nearly three times as much of their day on time management alone. A recent South African study conducted by Charles King from the University of Stellenbosch Business School found that a lack of sleep among South Africans employees results in direct and indirect costs to employers. The direct cost manifests itself as a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation, as intimated above, commonly results in poor performance, diminished productivity, increased workplace accidents and absenteeism. King’s study also showed that one night with less than six hours sleep is equivalent to two totally sleepless nights with regard to its impact on cognitive performance. These studies both showed that sleep-deprived workers are less motivated, had difficulty focusing, memorising and making good decisions.

Conversely, just as poor quality sleep or lack of sleep causes a decline in productivity, good quality and sufficient amounts of sleep results in productivity benefits such as faster reactions, better judgement and decision-making skills, improved memory, easier problem-solving, fewer errors and higher accuracy. It goes without saying that, when employees are in need of an energy boost, a nap will go a long way in achieving this. The American non-profit organisation, the National Sleep Foundation, explains that, by definition, a power nap is a short, 20 or 30 minute nap, which is taken as a productivity boost. The brevity of the nap is what makes it so effective. It is also most effective to take a nap when one most needs it, such as during that productivity dip in the afternoon with which we are all too familiar.

So, is this not motivation enough to encourage employees to get a good night’s rest or have a quick power nap? Does this mean that employer’s should be sending employees home for midday siestas or sending them home at 7pm? Not necessarily. The likes of Google, Uber, Nike, Huffington Post and other mega corporations have set the trend of introducing “sleep pods” which employees can use during working hours to rejuvenate their energy levels. Some of these companies have been utilising sleep pods for nearly a decade. Why hasn’t South Africa jumped on this band-wagon?

Aside from the select few companies in South Africa that do make use of sleep pods, most employers do not make use of this innovation for a reason one can only assume: sleeping on the job is perceived as a taboo. South African corporates seem to maintain the idea that the more sleep deprived and exhausted you are, the harder you must be working and if you are napping on the job, you are lazy or not coping. This is an outdated view which employers ought to move away from if they want to retain not only healthy employees, but happy ones too. This is particularly important for the upcoming Millennial and Gen Z workforce who are quick to change jobs if their needs are not being accommodated.

However, while the use of sleep pods in the workplace is likely to be considered by most to be innovative and progressive, is it necessarily appropriate for all employers in all industries? It may be more appropriate in certain industries where employees are physically required to be at work for lengthy periods of time, for example, technical experts or IT support functions. In this regard, employers may well benefit in the long run from promoting sleep in the workplace. On the other hand, in industries where employees’ physical presence is not necessarily required and they can work remotely, there may not be such a great benefit to the employer. Employees may be able to work from home or any other remote location and may not find as much use in sleeping at work.

To the extent that employers are considering the introduction of sleep pods, employers should be mindful of certain considerations:

  • If they are used as a means of pushing through the night, the consequence of not separating work life from home life may be counterproductive in that employees may get into the habit of spending more time at work (due to the availability of sleeping facilities), which may impact their personal lives;
  • Individuals are vulnerable when they are asleep and there is a possibility of increased sexual harassment incidents which should be carefully managed and monitored. Similarly, it may encourage more office romances if the pods are big enough to accommodate more than one employee at a time; and
  • There may be zoning or lease restrictions if, for instance, the area is not zoned for sleeping on the property or the lease agreement prohibits this.

It is clear that a balance needs to be struck between the pros and cons of allowing employees to nap in the workplace during or after working hours. Employers need to be cognisant of the benefits of employees getting enough shut-eye, but also cognisant of the risk of this happening at the workplace. Before spending money on installing sleep pods, employers should: (i) do a proper due diligence into whether, for their workforce, it would be effective and beneficial; and, (ii) decide upon the napping “no-no’s”.