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Sleeping on the Job

Published onJul 25, 2023
Sleeping on the Job

“No workplace shall be repurposed for slumber.” Many sayings by Kier Eagan, Lumon Industries’ founder and CEO, appear in the show Severance. Of all the Kier Eagan dictums that appear in Lumon’s Compliance Handbook, this one about slumber has most captured my imagination.

In an intimate scene in episode 4, Irv quotes this rule to his new friend, Burt, who works in a different department (Irv in Macrodata Refinement; Burt in Optics and Design). Irv ashamedly shares that he sometimes dozes off at work, and Burt responds by referring to their outside-of-work counterparts:

Burt: I wish I could nap. I think I sleep 15 hours a night up there.

Irving: It’s a character flaw.

Burt: It just means you’re a party guy, disco king.

Irving: I can’t be falling asleep, Burt.

Burt: Who cares?

Irving: The handbook cares. “No workplace shall be repurposed for slumber.”1

I’ve definitely slept while working. I’ve certainly fallen asleep at my desk, while grading papers, while responding to emails. I’ve dozed while reading ethnographies. I’ve snoozed while writing them. I’ll push my laptop a few inches from me, cross my arms on my desk, lay my head on my arms, and soon I’ll be in the land of Nod.

I could do that right now, and no one would give me grief. I’m in control of my work schedule and activities, and I can choose what to work on, when, how, and why. My work is designed in a way that gives me agency and purpose. I’m quite aware that as a full professor, my relationship to work is an outlier in neoliberal work arrangements that rely on the control of workers. Control at work comes in documented forms, such as rules about the hours one works and the activities one engages in. That control also comes in subtle forms, such as often-unsaid expectations about who an employee is expected to be at work as well as outside of work.

Compared to being a professor, most jobs are less conducive to sleeping on the job. I’ve done research in factories and mills for many years, and I certainly know that in each of those workplaces, staying awake while working with machinery is a basic requirement. Employee manuals specify the importance of staying awake while working, and there are explicit rules about notifying managers when one is on medication that might induce sleepiness.

Sleeping while working textile machinery is obviously more dangerous than Irv catnapping at his computer while “refining data” (which looks a lot like what I remember of 1980s video games). But in both cases, there’s a common thread: sleeping is forbidden when one is supposed to be productive for the sake of the employer’s larger goals. Irv, who has studied extensively the Compliance Handbook, is concerned about breaking rules by sleeping at work. He’s concerned about his body making demands that he cannot resist, despite his deep sense of loyalty to Lumon and Lumon’s rules. Once asleep, Irv is troubled by his workplace dreams of black oil-like substance oozing through the walls, the ceilings, and the partitions of his desk cubicle.

The prohibition against sleeping at Lumon Industries is one element of a case of employer control of workers that, rooted in the severance medical procedure, is certainly a form of extreme control. Severance depicts an edge case that enables us to reflect on questions about work and society under neoliberalism. It provides a caricature of relationships between workers and employers, between workers and their work, and between workers’ lives at work and outside of work. Perhaps, from the Lumon corporate perspective, workers should not sleep at work because it keeps them from being productive.

The “severance” of inside and outside of work personas, though, suggests that there’s more to the anti-slumber dictum than a focus on productivity.

The show is premised on a notion of “innies” and “outies” having fully distinct lives. The inside-of-work person (the “innie”) knows nothing about the outside-of-work person (the “outie”). The separation of life inside and outside of work is something “outies” choose for a variety of reasons—for example, the main character, Mark, did so to escape the pain of grieving for his deceased wife.

The principle, we learn early on, is that “access to memories will be spatially located.” What is severed is any memory regarding activities and relationships, loves and worries that would otherwise cross between inside and outside of work. Memories persist day-to-day in their specific spatial location, but not across locations. However, there is plenty of carryover between inside and outside work, in the realm of how to be in the world—in the realm of culture and practical reason, as it were.2 Whether inside or outside work, the severed characters possess a basic cultural understanding of how to live in the world, how to read and speak and communicate, how to connect with others, how to develop friendship and love, and how to be workers.

The Lumon universe is quite elaborate in how the distinction between innies and outies is maintained and depicted. Nothing from outside is to enter Lumon except for the workers and the clothes they wear. Watches and cell phones are shed before entering work, there’s no outside reading materials, there are no family photos displayed on desks. The employer cultivates strong affective relationships—to a point—among workers within the same department, with manufactured sanctioned forms of celebration for productivity milestones (a waffle party! a “music dance experience”!) and the provision of regulation work group photos for desks.3

In this context, it appears that the employer worry is that sleeping on the job could result in dreams that could break the artificial separation of inside and outside. Sleeping (and dreaming) are very much part of what it means to be human, and they are not fully subject to human control. I sometimes feel I must surrender to my need for a nap, even if it’s really not what I want to do (though caffeine and a change of location can help stave off the need). Dreams and nodding off don't seem available to the kind of control over the self that neoliberalism advocates for, and it’s clear that the severance procedure hasn’t managed to get to the stage of controlling the innies’ dreams. Irv, who is the only employee who we see suffering from sleepiness at work, is a very distinct corporate character. More than anyone else, Irv voices a strong, persnickety loyalty to Lumon’s rules (until he doesn’t, toward the end of Season 1).

In the United States today, leadership and business books, articles, and blogs are filled with questions about how an employer and a leader should embrace the mantra of “bring your whole self to work.” There is guidance on how and why a leader can follow this approach, and how and why a leader can support this kind of authenticity among employees. From the worker perspective, there are numerous inspirational self-help books, podcasts, and blogs that guide employees into understanding how to be authentic at work.

Severance raises the question of whether “the whole self” includes the part of a person that dreams, that tosses and turns? In the universe of Lumon Industries, there are traces of the legal environment that enables the severance medical procedure to happen, including the policies and procedures documents that clearly describe the legal rights and waiver of rights for the employees who agree to undergo the severance procedure. With its clever medical procedure, the Severance universe has devised an apparently clean solution to the problems of how much a workplace controls a worker. By investing Irv, the most loyal of all the Macrodata Refinement employees, with the irresistibility of slumber and the ooze-filled dreams that reveal how “unclean” the separation is between innies and outies, the show’s creators let us see fissures in this system of workplace control of workers.

And we see fissures elsewhere in the show. We learn of criticism that exists at the margins of Lumon Industries and begins to move into the workplace in the form of a liberatory self-help book called The You You Are, by Dr. Ricken Lazlo Hale. With inspirational commentary such as “Your job needs you, not the other way around,” the book begins to influence, one-by-one, the Macrodata Refinement employees, so much so that Mark eventually tells his co-workers that the book “changed my life.”

On the outside, a group called the Whole Mind Collective holds protests about the workplace and the procedure, with signs, leaflets, and critical slogans referring to “subjugation” and “mass incarceration.” One leaflet takes on the ambiguity of the “mysterious and important”4 work that is done inside (workers do not know why they do what they do during work): “Severance robs the worker of moral self-governance. One may spend one’s day hacking children to bits and go home to one’s own none the wiser.”5

Back in the real-life universe where I live and work, when I’m in my faculty office, I sometimes hear the wake-up alarm in the office of the person next door. My office neighbor is an accomplished power napper who can sleep for 10 minutes to be reinvigorated for hours that follow. There’s a part of me that feels like I shouldn’t know this about my neighbor. It feels too personal, and I feel a little embarrassed when I hear my neighbor open their office door when naptime is over. At the same time, I feel comforted knowing we have the agency to make our workplace what we need and want it to be.

Even in factories, I’ve seen people sleep.

At a Massachusetts needle factory that employs older adults (median age 76, the eldest worker right now is probably close to 100), it wasn’t uncommon during my fieldwork there for me to see someone take a catnap while doing light assembly or packaging work. Coworkers or the unusually empathetic supervisors would gently tap awake the sleeping worker. As with my own workplace, this needle factory supports a work arrangement that is flexible to workers’ capabilities.6

At an abandoned Massachusetts textile mill I’ve visited that used to produce enormous sheets of paper machine felt (for use in paper-making machines),7 the workers and machines are all gone but posted signs and trash left behind tell stories of the workers and work processes. One sign reads: “Walking or sleeping on felts is not permitted.” A former employee explained to me that the finished felts would be piled in that area prior to shipping. Knowing that workplace injunctions typically are created in response to real-life worker behavior, I picture a mill worker snoozing on the soft wool felts, piled layer-upon-layer like mattresses in “The Princess and the Pea.”

Severance is both a powerful depiction of a dystopian neoliberal workplace, and a commentary on workers’ making meaning and demonstrating agency in the context of managerial control. I’ve been looking forward to seeing what happens when Irv embraces his workplace dreams in Season 2. However, in May 2023, it was announced that the production of Season 2 “has been halted indefinitely” due to the strike by the Writers’ Guild of America.8 Real-life worker-employer disputes have halted the production of an artistic representation of the same. I can imagine Lumon managers using that irony as evidence of the need for a new and more potent form of severance where an outie’s consent to be severed is no longer a requirement.

Lynn Bailey:

In many work environments, there are strict rules and expectations regarding sonic exe working hours and activities. These rules can limit employees' autonomy and agency, resulting in a lack of control over their work. In addition, there may be unspoken expectations about how employees should behave and present themselves both in the workplace and outside of the workplace.