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[Weekender] Struggles of a sleepless society

Instead of sipping lattes, visitors to one cafe in Gye-dong, central Seoul, get into hammocks and doze off, indulging in a short break from a hectic day in Korea’s busiest city.

Nazzzam has attracted a lot of attention since opening last year as the nation’s first “nap cafe.”

But its owner, Jeong Ji-eun, claims the place offers more than just shut-eye.

“It’s not a sleeping area per se, but a place where people can take a break from their busy lives,” she said.

Originally a freelance English teacher for companies, Jeong got the idea for the cafe when she witnessed fatigued office workers desperately trying to cram in a few minutes of sleep during their busy days.
Nap cafe Nazzzam
Nap cafe Nazzzam

“Countries like Spain have the culture of the siesta but Korea, a country that could actually use some breaks, ironically does not, because we think naps are lazy,” Jeong said.

Hard work, once considered the top virtue and the driving force behind Korea’s improbable transformation from an underdeveloped country to one of Asia’s powerhouses, appears to be hurting Koreans as they suffer from a lack of sleep.

Sleepless society

Sleep deprivation appears to be ailing people across the country, from office workers shouldering piles of work to students struggling to keep up with the curriculum.

About 57.8 percent of respondents to a recent survey by local food company CJ Cheil Jedang said they don’t get enough sleep.

The survey also showed that only 3 out of 10 people were satisfied in terms of both quality and quantity of sleep.

Work is among the biggest culprits behind the lack of sleep. In Seoul after dark, it is common to see office workers with bags under their eyes. Day after day, residents of the 10-million-strong metropolis burn the midnight oil in a city that, quite literally, never sleeps.

“Between work, business meetings and after-hours chores, it’s a pretty far-fetched hope to get sufficient rest,” said a 28-year-old worker named Yoo, who just started working at a pharmaceutical company. “Even when I do manage to get some sleep, work is always on my mind.”

Even as he spoke, Yoo kept his smartphone in his hands in case his superiors at work called him. It was a reminder of the extent to which modern Korean life is dominated by work.

Another survey by job information website found that 89.2 percent of workers feel their quality of life was compromised by late-night working hours.

Technological advances, while they offer convenience, have also deteriorated the quality of sleep. Researchers from Norway’s Uni Research Health recently found that teenagers’ use of electronic devices such as TVs, PCs and mobile phones during the day and in the hour before bedtime could disrupt one’s sleep.

But keeping children and teenagers away from these devices appears to be a particularly tall order in Korea, where 90 percent of them own a smartphone.

Studying is also among the key factors that robs teens of sleep. Around 69.5 percent of high school students felt they were sleep-deprived and the No. 1 reason was schoolwork, according to a survey by the National Youth Policy Institute.

Struggle for solution

The heavy load of schoolwork coupled with the effects of technology have resulted in an overall lack of sleep for students across the country. In a bid to address the growing problem, some education offices in Korea have pushed back the official school hours to start at 9 a.m.

While the policy has sparked controversy among educators and teachers, local psychiatrists like Kang Seung-gul of Gachon University’s Gil Medical Center have said the contentious policy could help students avoid the risks that come from sleep deprivation.

These efforts to get students some more sleep notwithstanding, their enormous workloads prevent them from getting sufficient rest. Furthermore, the majority of office workers still suffer from a shortage of sleep.

With the nation’s engine showing no signs of slowing down, it is possible that the nap cafe’s idea offers a hint at the solution for tired Koreans: Just take a break.

“My personal goal is for companies to regard naps as part of its welfare plans. I’m hoping that once people start realizing the necessity of taking a nap, it will become a culture in Korea,” Jeong said.

By Yoon Min-sik (