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THE CUTTING EDGE: SMALL OFFICE / HOME OFFICE

Take Your Perks Seriously (and Lying Down)

Benefits: It's time for the home-working masses to confess: They nap and they're proud.

June 16, 1997|DANIEL AKST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Much has been written lately about the growing legion of Americans who work at home, but hardly anyone has paid attention to what might, with nary a snicker, be termed the most eye-opening aspect of this trend: the remarkable resurgence of the siesta.

With no one to frown on their recumbency, the monkish few who work cloistered in their own houses are well-suited to the siesta. The word itself comes from the Latin sexta, or sixth, as in sexta hora, for "sixth hour." To the ancient Romans, this was midday (they simply divided the daylight by 12), and in monastic life the sext is the service performed at noon. If you start work at 9 a.m., of course, the sixth hour is 3 p.m., when the god you are most likely to worship, albeit secretly, is Morpheus.

Perhaps there is good reason for this conspiracy of silence. Surely people who work at home but are employed by others don't want bosses and co-workers to know that they sack out for an hour every afternoon while everyone else has to stumble through the rest of the day in the usual post-prandial stupor.

But even the self-employed have reason for secrecy. Why give clients reason to believe that their high-powered consultants and freelancers nap like little children every day? And then there is the delicate subject of spousal equality. When my wife was still practicing dentistry, she spent difficult afternoons rushing from patient to patient, soothing toothaches and fears, while I might be sound asleep. For writers, there is always a thin line between working and not working. Getting into bed, in the eyes of the uninformed, might rashly be considered crossing it.

Enough, I say. It is time for us work-at-homes to acknowledge what all of us know but none of us will say, which is that we take naps. And why not? Many of us forgo steady paychecks, cushy offices, lucrative benefits, impressive titles and other perks, working instead as what demographers like to call "lone eagles." We're lean, keen-eyed, independent, soaring high above the bureaucracies of corporate America and, OK, sometimes a little sleepy.

So we nap. Perhaps our daily visits to the Land of Nod give many of us the waking edge we need to remain upright on the high wire of self-employment. Greatness, after all, is associated with napping. Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison and John Kennedy were all nappers--to say nothing of Dagwood Bumstead and Homer Simpson--and I find it hard to believe that

Marcel Proust and Walker Percy, who often wrote in bed, never took the opportunity to catch a little shut-eye between chapters.

Besides, history is on our side. Society's current way of organizing the workday is a relatively recent manifestation of advanced industrial capitalism. It goes with the idea of people commuting some distance to work together, perhaps on an assembly line. Thus, the siesta so familiar in the Mediterranean world has wilted in some places under pressure of modernization, to say nothing of air-conditioning.

There was a time, however, when things were different. Almost everyone worked at home, and people's schedules were set by the rising and setting of the sun. They spent many more hours in bed than we do, and were in all likelihood better rested. (At my age, many of them were, in fact, dead, but that's not tiring, either.)

*

Today, as we enter a postindustrial era, a chorus of wide-eyed experts warns that we as a nation are seriously sleep-deprived. The government estimates that at least 50,000 auto accidents a year are caused by sleepy drivers, and a study of 2,000 people, published in the journal Sleep, found that lack of sleep affects mood, thinking and motor skills (duh).

The National Sleep Foundation, no doubt burning the midnight oil, recently calculated that sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy some $18 billion a year in lost productivity.

Once again, we who work at home are at the cutting edge of rejuvenating the American economy, and we're so productive we're even doing so in our sleep! Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that Stanford University sleep pioneer Dr. William Dement says that taking a nap these days has become "a heroic act"?

With all due modesty, let me say that my own heroism in this department lies in doing what comes naturally. Instead of attending pointless meetings, reporting to middle managers whose function is wholly mysterious and wasting hours commuting, we who work at home understand that there is no shame in the body's irresistible urgings. Scientists have established beyond doubt that humans are genetically programmed to sleep at certain times of day, and the sleepiest times of all are between 3 and 5 a.m., which most of us accept, and between 3 and 5 p.m., which, for reasons of continued employment, most of us have to reject.

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