Daniel H Pink is author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
About a decade ago, the government of Spain issued a culture-rattling decree. Officials declared that the demands of the global economy were more powerful than the tug of tradition – and that it was time to eliminate the siesta.
For centuries, many Spaniards enjoyed a regular afternoon respite, often returning home for a meal with the family or a quick snooze. But the world had changed, Spanish leaders concluded. To compete and win in the modern economy, this ancient practice had to go.
North Americans, our spines already stiffened by frigid temperatures and the cold breath of Puritanism, applauded the news. At last, Old Europe was becoming modern.
But maybe we got it wrong. An emerging body of science is showing that siesta cultures might have been ahead of their time. Over the past 20 years, researchers in social science, medicine and organizational behaviour have discovered that regular, intentional breaks in the work day are far more important to our productivity, creativity and overall well-being than most of us realize.
For example, take lunch. Seriously, take a lunch.
While many of us believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the research on the virtues of the morning meal are less certain. However, social scientists are discovering that a proper lunch (as opposed to a sad desk lunch with tuna sandwich in one hand and a buzzing Android in the other) can have an outsize impact on our workplace performance.
For example, a 2016 study looked at more than 800 workers (mostly in information technology, education and media) from 11 different organizations, some of whom regularly took lunch breaks away from their desks, some of whom did not. Those who took real lunch breaks were better able to contend with workplace stress. They showed less exhaustion and greater vigour, not just during the remainder of the day but also a full year later.
In particular, researchers are finding that lunches that combine autonomy and detachment – two characteristics of the siesta – are especially valuable in combatting the afternoon slump. "The extent to which employees can determine how they utilize their lunch breaks may be just as important as what employees do during their lunch," said four researchers in the Academy of Management Journal. And multiple studies have shown that staying focused on work during lunch, or even using one's phone for social media, can intensify fatigue – but that shifting one's attention away from work (and leaving the phone behind) can have the opposite effect.
Little wonder that in Toronto, CBRE, the large commercial real estate firm, has banned desk lunches in the hope that employees will opt for more restorative lunch breaks. Or take naps. Seriously, go ahead and take a nap.
Scientists are discovering that naps are Zambonis for our brains. They smooth out the nicks, scuffs and scratches a typical day leaves on our mental ice. For example, a University of California, Berkeley, study found that an afternoon nap expands the brain's capacity to learn and retain information. Other research has found that naps boost short-term memory, lift mood and increase feelings of "flow," that powerful source of engagement and creativity. Naps can also reduce our risk of heart disease and strengthen our immune systems.
But these naps need not be as lengthy as a full-fledged siesta. The ideal naps – those that give us a boost without enveloping us in a haze of "sleep inertia" – are quite short, usually between 10 and 20 minutes. One Australian study published in the journal Sleep found that 10-minute naps had positive effects that lasted nearly three hours.
Once again, some companies are modernizing their workplaces in tune with the science. Ben & Jerry's, Zappos, Uber and Nike have all created napping spaces for employees in their offices.
Not too long ago, around the time that Spain decided to banish the siesta, we admired the guy (and it was usually a guy) who'd come into the office, brag about pulling an all-nighter and boast about needing only three hours of sleep a night.
Then the science of sleep began emerging and we understood that the sleepless guy wasn't a hero. He was a fool. He was compromising his own performance, and maybe dragging down the rest of us with him.
The science of breaks is where the science of sleep was then. And that means it's time to rehabilitate the siesta. A modern siesta doesn't require two or three hours off in the middle of the day. That's neither useful nor realistic. But it does require challenging the belief that skipping lunch is a badge of honour or that taking a nap is a mark of shame.
Most of all, it means treating breaks as an essential component of an organization's architecture – understanding them not as a soft-hearted Old World concession but as a tough-minded 21st-century tool for doing better work.