LONDON – Taking a quick nap at your desk or even in a meeting is not an uncommon sight in Japanese offices, but it’s something you’re unlikely to find in Britain, where workers are expected to remain alert at all times.
In Japan, the practice is known as inemuri — taking a short nap when you are officially supposed to be doing something else. It is often permitted because it shows you have been working hard and are just taking a little time out.
Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in modern Japanese studies at Cambridge University, has been studying the habit and has written extensively on the practice. Inemuri also applies to nonwork contexts, such as when people fall asleep on the train or on social occasions.
She recently introduced the concept at a special talk given at the Japan Foundation in London. Several sleep experts were in the audience.
Steger describes inemuri as a kind of “daydreaming with the eyes closed.” The individuals maintain their body positions, giving the impression they are still “present” and engaged with what they should be doing. As long as they do not snore or take off garments to make themselves comfier, the practice is largely tolerated.
Robert Meadows, a sleep expert at University of Surrey, said this practice contrasts with the traditional attitude in Britain that sleep should be done at night in private.
Some people do nap on public transport but that is generally the only time you will see British people doing inemuri. If they feel the need to nap, Brits will generally remove themselves from a situation and doze off in private.
However, some experts in the West are now starting to question this prevailing “sleep is for wimps” culture and asking whether British firms should allow staff to take naps, particularly after lunch when efficiency is usually low, according to Meadows.
A small number of groups allow workers to take “power naps” — naps taken on purpose in a special room where one can lie down and completely switch off. Some universities have also introduced “sleep pods” to boost memory retention.
So, should Britain embrace inemuri?
Neil Stanley, a leading international authority on the benefits of sleep, believes Britain should. But there needs to be a culture change so that, as in Japan, it is seen as something positive and an indication of your commitment to work.
Speaking to Kyodo News after Steger’s talk, he said, “Whilst inemuri seems to be a very good idea and could easily be adopted in the U.K., I think that the mentality that we have here that napping is a sign of weakness or laziness would need to be overcome.
“Inemuri is showing a rational acceptance of a situation where you have to be there but not necessarily contributing. It seems a bit perverse that just closing your eyes is seen as a huge negative (in Britain),” he said. “In conferences, you often see people using tablets and playing games, but the minute you see someone sleeping, there’s a negative reaction against them. Why?
“We live in a society that has problems with sleep. Many of us are running a sleep debt and we don’t always have to be alert and on,” Stanley said.
A show of hands at the end of the night event indicated quite a lot of support for inemuri. Many in the audience said they would love to doze off at their desks but some would feel embarrassed at napping in front of colleagues.
And indeed one Japanese woman told the meeting that some Japanese were embarrassed at napping and there were definite rules of conduct governing inemuri.
Sue d’Authreau said, “I think inemuri happens already in the U.K. more than we admit . . .but sometimes if you keep on going you can feel burnt out. A short nap could get you back into work, and in a more creative way.”
One woman who understandably refused to give her name said, “My colleagues and I often fall asleep for about five minutes. I feel so much better afterwards but I do it when my manager is not around. I would be horrified if someone came into the office and saw me asleep!”