Are Naps Actually Good for Economic Productivity?

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Photo: Ignacio Perez Diez

For most employed Americans, a typical weekday starts around 9 a.m., punctuated by a quick, harried trip to grab something to eat at one’s desk, maybe some afternoon coffee to beat the post-lunch doldrums and power through until around 6 p.m., when it is, mercifully, time to go home

In parts of Spain, however, the workday is a little different: There’s a chunk of time midday when workers linger over lunch and sneak in a nap — about a three-hour break in total — before returning to work till about 8 p.m. This is the famous/infamous siesta that is, depending on whom you ask, a sign of how much more the Spanish prioritize living and enjoyment than we overworked drones do, or of how lazy and decadent southern Europeans are.

Either way, this time-honored Spanish tradition is being threatened. The Independent reports that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wants to slash the siesta, get Spain back in line with Western culture, and have its citizens work something closer to a 9-to-6 day. The article points out that this idea isn’t new: A 2013 Spanish parliamentary commission found that “[w] e need more flexible working hours, to cut our lunch breaks, to streamline business meetings by setting time limits for them, and to practise and demand punctuality.”

The move is being presented as a way to boost Spain’s sagging productivity — Spaniards work longer hours than Germans do but are less productive, the article points out (and, more broadly, Spain, like much of southern Europe, has taken an economic beating in recent years for a wide variety of reasons). But will it work?

There’s plenty of scattered, anecdotal evidence for the productivity benefits of naps. Kindergartners take a snooze midday and are up and at it afterwards. To take a perhaps more relevant example, the Japanese, too, have made the art of the power nap a key point of productivity (fun fact: the Japanese picked up their napping habits thanks to Iberian missionaries who traveled from Spain in the 17th century preaching both the Gospel and the gospel of midday siestas). But most Western cultures — and Americans, specifically — decry sleeping on the job, seeing it as a waste of valuable time and a drain on that most precious of commodities: productivity.

Now, among health researchers and psychologists, the benefits of sleep more broadly have been repeatedly established: clock in seven to eight hours a night and you should be refreshed enough to power through your day with a revitalized memory and attention span. Naps aren’t as well studied, but there are some signs they are beneficial, with some recent evidence suggesting midday naps are linked to lower coronary death rates, and that they may be the ultimate secret to peak productivity.

Among economists, however — the group most concerned with productivity — there’s a surprising dearth of resarch on sleep, with just a few papers published on the topic. That’s because economists aren’t sure how to classify sleep as part of our day when they’re crunching numbers on productivity. Most of the great labor economists of recent history – Keynes, Becker, the like – tended to toss sleep aside as an extraneous variable, something that had nothing to do with work (you’re awake when you work, so why should the opposite matter?).

But these days, especially as the economy has shifted increasingly toward punishing work hours and higher rates of working from home, economists are beginning to rethink their recent history of ignoring sleep, and realizing it should probably be a part of the productivity equation.

Luckily for us, a pair of economists, Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Shrader, took a hard look at the economics of sleep in a paper published last fall, “Time Use and Productivity: The Wage Returns to Sleep.” The two looked at data provided by the American Time Use Survey, where Americans account for how many hours per day they eat, work, do chores, spend time on leisure activities, and — importantly for us here — sleep. What Gibson and Shrader found was that sleep has a definite effect on productivity, which in turn might affect worker wages (the more productive you are at work, the more likely you either score a raise or get compensated with tips): Just one extra hour of sleep a week increased short-run wages by 1.5 percent (defined as over the course of a season here) and long-run wages by 4.9 percent (over the course of a few years, or the time it takes for a house to change value). For a person who makes $50,000 a year, that’s a bonus of $2,450 at the end of the year for sleeping an extra 12 minutes per work day. Here’s the thing, though: Gibson’s and Shrader’s study didn’t directly address naps, and it was focused on Americans, who tend to be a unique breed of worker in that they are usually working more hours compared to others around the world.

In an interview, Shrader suggested the question of whether or not a siesta helps productivity is perhaps the wrong one: What we should be asking about instead is about time zones and Daylight Saving. Yes, that annoying one-hour spring-forward-fall-back thing we do every few months or so might have an effect on what we’re producing daily.

And this plays into the Spanish siesta debate. Remember how the Spanish prime minister wants to cut down on siestas? He also wants to get Spain back to Greenwich Mean Time like its economically more successful neighbors England and France (Spain, which is between England and France, is curiously in the Central European time zone). Many Spaniards point to this weird time quirk as a reason why Spain’s economy seems to be in a permanent state of siesta.

Shrader says that the hour of sleeping has a lot to do with what he calls “sun-time,” or the natural times when you are supposed to be up with the sun or getting cozy in bed when the sun dips below the horizon. “Spain is one of the most off countries in the world,” he said. And there’s evidence that the most eastern-residing people of a time zone — or those who get more sun-time, and earlier — gain an extra hour of sleep everyday compared to those on the western end of a time zone, who are getting sun later into the night. That hour means western time zone folks — like Spain — are going to bed later, getting up groggy, and trudging through the work day looking for a nap.

And herein lies the issue with naps: They’re a short-term solution to what is probably a long-term sleeping deficit. Shrader says that while, in theory, naps sound like a surefire way to boost productivity, the truth is that the desire to take one masks the fact that you’re probably not sleeping as well at night. “Nighttime sleep is better than naps,” he said with regard to productivity — at least in America, where “you snooze, you lose” is a motto. In Spain? “We’re not sure,” Shrader said.