The recent hullaballoo over everyone from air traffic controllers to Vice President Joe Biden napping on the job really struck a chord with me. Of course, anybody who remembers Biden’s first run for president knows that he’s far more proficient at putting people to sleep than napping himself.
But the hoohah made me realize just how different the publishing industry, where I’ve spent my career, is from the rest of the world. It may not have been an ivory tower, but it does resemble the castle in which Sleeping Beauty rested.
My first job out of college in the 70s was at a magazine start-up. We were not only working long hours to launch multiple publications (magazine, newsletter, guidebook), but because most of us were being paid the grand sum of $3 per hour, we also had second jobs. Exhaustion was part of the equation.
More than once in the afternoon, I sought out the bookkeeper, one of the few people who had her own office, and stretched out under one of the folding tables there. One day my boss came in looking for me. First he frowned, and then he sighed and told the bookkeeper, “Ask Howard to come see me when he wakes up.”
In the 80s, I was editor at another travel magazine in San Francisco. The publisher had set up this terrific system where we worked longer-than-normal hours each day, but got every other Friday off. Because I lived an hour away by train, I started getting up at 5 a.m. to get to work on time. I had my own office by this time, and I would occasionally close my door, sit down on the couch, throw my feet up on the coffee table, and snooze. This publisher was not as forgiving as the first one, which is why I started drinking coffee for the first time.
In the 90s, I worked for a magazine that had the most civilized perk I have encountered, before or since: an actual nap room, with futon mattresses on wooden platforms, surrounded by curtains. It was ironic that this particular magazine had a nap room, since the editor frowned on people working late. If you couldn’t finish your work in a normal eight-hour day, it meant that you were either inefficient or disorganized. Sad to say, the nap room was closed down after I left the magazine, because some people started using it for activities other than naps. Draw your own conclusions.
It’s almost cruel to think of the laissez-faire attitude of my bosses in publishing, especially when there are so many industries where people are sleep-deprived and really shouldn’t be. Being married to a physician who was forced to work long, sleep-deprived hours as a resident, I find the difference horribly stark: if a writer makes a mistake, it’s a typographical error; if a doctor makes a mistake, someone could die.
In last week’s San Francisco Chronicle , a former air traffic controller described this typical schedule: “Monday, 6 a.m.; Tuesday, 10 a.m.; Wednesday, 1:30 p.m.; Thursday, 8 a.m. and then again at 10 p.m.” Hey, I’d be writing gibberish if I worked those hours. And according to this page on the Harvard Medical School’s web site, sleep deprivation contributed to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster and the Exxon Valdez spill.
I’m thinking the only logical answer to avoiding situations like this is to bring back the nap room idea. If we could only come up with a way to ensure people used it for sleeping rather than sleeping together.