Take a Nap to Get Ahead at Work

A Mexican billionaire and Seoul want to reform how we do our jobs
Photograph by Getty Images

Carlos Slim is a pretty successful guy, either the world’s richest or second-richest, depending on which measure you use and how much he spent on lunch that day. So it’s worth taking note when he has something to say about work and productivity.

At a recent conference in Paraguay, Slim, who controls América Móvil, the largest mobile phone operator in the Americas, pitched an overhaul of the 9-to-5 grind: People should work three days a week, putting in longer days (11 hours) and retiring later in life (at around 70). The extra days off each week would give people more time to relax and invent things, Slim said.

On the other side of the world, the Seoul city government was singing a similar tune—a lullaby, actually: Workers will soon have permission to take afternoon naps, though the nap experiment is restricted to summer. Perhaps city officials realize what science has been saying for a while: Napping improves cognitive performance, especially if the snooze is in the 10- to 25-minute range.

This work-less-nap-more ethos is not new. But its primary advocates have tended to be from the squishier end of the work spectrum, places like Sweden or Google. Now it’s gaining support from a hard-charging billionaire and officials in the largest city of a nation famous for grueling workdays and sleep deprivation.

Their ideas will have a tough time catching on. The pressure on the workweek, abetted by technological change and employment anxiety, is all the other way: to expand, not contract. The genius of Slim and Seoul’s ideas is that they accept the malleability of the 21st century workweek but ask why the change has been in only one direction. Just because the workplace is always on, the workweek doesn’t have to be. The five-day week, after all, was established in the early 20th century. Hasn’t the workplace become more efficient since then? Shouldn’t the workweek?

Some groggy bureaucrats in Seoul and an industrious billionaire in Mexico City are saying it should. The question is how to get from here to there. There may well be no one-size-sleeps-all solution, or it may take a year of 18-hour days to figure it out. But at least people are finally waking up to the problem.

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