Did you hear the one about the civil servant in Spain who skipped work for years and no one noticed — until he was about to get an award?

Share story

The annals of Bizarre Tales from the Bureaucratic Workplace got a little weirder last month.

The California State Auditor’s Office released an investigative report in July citing several cases of state employee “misuse of state time and property and economically wasteful activities.”

A couple of California State University Fresno groundskeepers were said to miss thousands of hours of work over a four-year period, driving off campus to go to their homes or sitting in their cars rather than working. An assistant chief in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was cited for “building an unauthorized structure on state property using staff under his command” — which turned out to be a 16-by-20-foot tiki hut complete with plumbing, electrical and sewer connections in the yard of the state residence he rented.

But the case from the report that grabbed headlines nationwide in recent days was about a Department of Motor Vehicles data entry worker who the auditor’s office estimated slept “at least three hours each workday” over a four-year period, costing the state more than $40,000 in lost work. Better still, her supervisor knew about it — even repeatedly waking her up three to four times each day — yet the worker was still employed.

The stories prompted the usual hand-wringing over taxpayer waste — while others saw the DMV napper as truly living her best life. “Not all heroes wear capes,” as one Twitter user put it.

Of course, what happened with the sleeping worker appears to be more complicated than sheer laziness or brazen “you only live once”-ness. According to the report, supervisors said they were “reluctant to take further steps to address the employee’s sleeping and poor production because they speculated that a medical condition could be causing the employee to fall asleep.” The employee didn’t request a “reasonable accommodation” for a medical condition for two years. She had a doctor file a report saying she could not perform the needed duties and was told she could “retire, resign or return to work as a key data operator” with a physician’s release — which she received, only to continue sleeping on the job again. Because her supervisors did not properly document the issues, the report said, the DMV could not take “adverse action” against her.

Still, the story caught on. For one, it fits into the stereotype of government workers who waste public resources or slack off. Stories have fed this narrative, from the civil servant worker in Spain who skipped work for years and no one noticed — until he was about to get an award — or the New York state prison employee who submitted false time cards while skipping work every Friday for 17 years.

It also involved a worker for the DMV — a favorite public punching bag, with few equals other than the IRS, for people complaining about government bureaucracy, tedium and red tape.

But the story of someone sleeping on the job three hours a day also likely touched a nerve for those who can identify with the boredom and uselessness of their own jobs. The polling and consulting firm Gallup finds that 85 percent of workers are not engaged in their jobs. A survey of 5,000 professionals by the executive search firm Korn Ferry found the top reason people were seeking a new job is because of boredom. A mattress company poll found that 52 percent of workers reported napping at work. (Some manufacturers have even developed high-tech workplace nap pods for those 52 percent.)

David Graeber, the author of a recent book titled “Bulls–t Jobs,” said in an interview in June that many of the hundreds of responses he received from a widely read article that inspired his book came from not the public sector but the private one. That’s likely, he said, because — even if state audit reports like California’s highlight the worst cases — there is accountability that’s disclosed publicly.

“I was quite surprised,” he said. “There were definitely a lot in government but not the majority. Most of these were private-sector jobs. The public sector is under so much pressure not to do this kind of thing.”

He recounted the story of an employee at a design company with no IT experience who was hired to administer an internal computer system that no one wanted. Bored by the job’s pointlessness, “he spends the next year or so trying to figure out if there’s anything he can do that can get himself fired,” he said, reading novels at his desk, going on three-hour walks during work hours, taking long boozy lunches — but the employer won’t let him go, even giving him raises when he tries to quit. “You’d assume most people would dream of this,” Graeber said. “But he just went crazy. He just completely fell apart.”

Injecting jobs with more purpose and more challenges — not to mention real oversight — may be one way to keep people engaged and, well, awake. If that doesn’t work, the air conditioning giant Daikin and electronics company
NEC has another idea, according to a report by Agence France Presse. The company has begun experimenting with a system that monitors the movement of employees’ eyelids and — if it detects workers snoozing — can immediately lower the room’s temperature, keeping people alert with a blast of cold air.

You can enjoy your work naps just a bit longer. A spokesman said Daikin hopes to introduce the system commercially in 2020.