The pandemic has disrupted our routines, including how well we sleep. Stress-induced dreams, intermittent insomnia and Zoom fatigue have all become features of our new normal. As we begin looking to post-pandemic life, prioritising downtime and learning how to nap is an essential skill that we should all be prioritising.
Despite spending much of the past year in pyjamas, lockdown has done little to help us sleep. Blurred lines between work, school and home, plus a sustained level of uncertainty and that enforced state of lounge have left us feeling exhausted. But, it also led to some positives, including rethinking the misconception that living on the edge of burnout is a prerequisite for success.
Some people have moved to the countryside, others have adopted meditation, perfected walking and learned how to nap. Scientific studies show that sleeping during the day, even for short periods of time, allows us to reboot and be more productive, positively impacting mental and physical health. Yet, ‘sleep machismo’, or the idea that sleeping is a weakness, may be holding many of us back from actually sleeping enough.
Why do we feel so tired?
While not unique to the pandemic, burnout has peaked in the past year. Pre-Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, characterised by a loss of energy, disengagement and reduced productivity. Since March 2020, that phenomenon has extended into our homes.
Indeed, the WHO recorded a 60 per cent rise in demand for mental health services in the past 12 months, with increased pressures exacerbating existing issues and creating new ones, as people experienced multiple triggers, including grief, social isolation, stress and unstable income. According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of US adults who consider themselves ‘thriving’ has dropped to 48.8 per cent, the lowest level since the economic recession of 2008. While in the UK, a recent Ipsos Mori survey notes that 60 per cent say they find it harder to remain positive.
The impact of our current reliance on technology has played a big part in our collective burnout. While not specific to any single platform, at no time in history has virtual conferencing been so ubiquitous. Almost overnight, it became the only method for socialising, working and home-schooling, making its accompanying glitches, faceless squares and mute-button reminders all the more draining. Research by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, focuses on reducing the visual and mental overload caused by too much “unnaturally intense” close-eye contact and the lack of mobility when virtual conferencing. The study recommends minimising the size and number of faces on screen and opting to view yourself, while taking regular breaks and getting enough rest.
Could daily naps help prevent burnout?
Consider burnout a circuit breaker that flips when we reach our limit; a clear sign to prioritise rest. A 2002 Harvard University study by Sara Mednick and Ken Nakayama titled The Restorative Effect of Naps on Perceptual Deterioration concluded that naps could be the solution to burnout. When the visual cortex tires, our ability to take in new information is reduced. Rest then, even for short periods, allows the mind to reboot and function in a more productive way.
Mednick, professor of cognitive science at the University of California and co-author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman, 2006) notes: “It’s hard to pinpoint how we lost touch with the concept of balance between our active mode (upstates), and our restorative mode (downstates).” She explains that while we are in a downstate, we replenish and process our experiences ahead of the next upstate. Skipping this vital process has a direct impact on our health and ability to focus.
What is ‘sleep machismo’?
At the root of the resistance to sleeping enough is ‘sleep machismo’. The term was coined by chronobiologist and professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr Charles Czeisler, to encapsulate the mistaken belief that rest is a waste of time, equating a sacrifice of downtime with dedication or even genius. Take the CEO lauded for working 100 hours a week and travelling non-stop, who is actually modelling bad behaviour that their team will feel pressure to emulate. Another example is the polymath Leonardo da Vinci, who famously slept in polyphasic 20-minute intervals every four hours.
However, there are many geniuses known to favour the nap. Albert Einstein slept for more than 10 hours a day, with regular naps—he reportedly came up with his theory of relativity in a dream. Several American presidents also enjoyed afternoon naps, including Bill Clinton, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. NBA basketball player LeBron James reportedly sleeps for 12 hours a day, including multiple naps to boost his recovery and performance.
So, what are the benefits of taking a nap?
The idea that taking a nap is lazy is outmoded. Many countries with established nap cultures are proven to have higher productivity, longer lifespans and better quality of life. In Japan, inemuri (power napping at work) is considered respectful. In China, employers encourage napping or wu jiao at work to promote productivity. For countries with warmer climates, such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, taking an afternoon nap after a longer lunch break is practical, to avoid the hottest part of the day.
In recent years, big tech corps including Uber, Google and Facebook have encouraged napping, too, with flexible schedules and office sleep pods to help improve productivity. For Mednick, one of the upsides of working from home has been the flexibility to “explore circadian rhythms and sleep needs without judgment.” Yes, there may be an increased focus on the work, but there’s also more flexibility on when it’s done, opening up possibilities to nap and rest when needed.
Adequate sleep helps the body maintain a healthy immune response. Harvard Medical School sleep scientist Dr Rebecca Robbins sees “a correlation between length of sleep and healthy immunity. Sleep’s critically important role in immunity is twofold. First, sleep boosts our ability to fight exposure to viral pathogens. Simply reducing sleep by one or two hours in individuals made them more likely to get viral pathogens and less able to mount an antibody response. And secondly, adequate sleep helps vaccine efficacy and antibody production.” Napping can help address sleep deficits and prevent viral infection and recovery.
The economic benefits are clear. Burnout costs companies billions of dollars each year in employee turnover, healthcare and lost productivity. By contrast, in Norway, while employees work some of the lowest hours globally (26 to 38 hours per week), in 2021 they ranked second in a list of the most productive countries in the world. In France, the working week decreased from 39 to 35 hours a week in 2002 and maintained one of the highest gross domestic product (GDP) in Europe.
The new measures of success
Perhaps the best way for us to embrace better sleep habits is to emulate the countries that prioritise sleep wellness. According to the Nobel Prize-winning economist who developed the modern concept of GDP, Simon Kuznets, it doesn’t adequately measure the well-being of citizens. He noted in 1934: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Implied in Kuznets’ statement is an understanding that there is unequal access to wealth and resources even in the highest performing countries.
It’s promising then that some countries have started to move away from using GDP as the only measure of a nation’s success. Bhutan was ahead of the game, introducing the National Happiness Index in 1972, to measure the broader wellness of its citizens and natural environment as a gauge of national success. Following suit in 2018, New Zealand dropped GDP in favour of quality-of-life metrics such as mental health, child poverty, indigenous inequality, thriving in a digital age, and building a sustainable economy.
As we emerge from a generation-defining year—multiple lockdowns, police violence, systemic racism, lost loved ones, paused careers, working from home, home-schooling, self-isolation, Zoom fatigue and Covid-19 anxiety—maybe the best thing we can do now is start to look after ourselves and learn how to take a nap.