Are you sleeping on the job?

More employers are starting to see the benefits of a workplace nap.

Research shows snoozing at work might make you a better employee.

The power nap is tailor-made for our time-poor, work-weary world where we crave a quick fix. It can take as little as 10 minutes… with no effort. It doesn’t get easier than that.

The science is in and our bodies are primed – we are genetically programmed to experience a drop in alertness mid-afternoon, especially when sleep deprived. But in non-siesta cultures, napping struggles for acceptance.

As a longtime workplace health writer and speaker, I must reveal my bias towards creating the social change necessary to empower people to take a nap. Workplaces are happy to sanction artificial stimulation, i.e. coffee breaks, so why not also give the nod to some true rejuvenation?

While snoozing at work isn’t exactly sweeping the white-collar world, some organisations have no qualms about embracing the power nap as a productivity-enhancing tool.

Katie Weekes, Recruitment Manager at KPMG in Melbourne, says she has many “green” friends. Green with envy, that is, because her workplace houses an “energy sleep pod” where she can take an afternoon nap. “I don’t use it regularly, but it’s really nice to know it’s there on those days when I’m really tired, looking at the computer and my eyelids are wanting to close,” says Weekes. “I nap for 20 minutes and feel refreshed and revived.”

Employees at Google’s Sydney headquarters and iSelect Insurance in Melbourne also enjoy the same facility. “It’s played an important role in keeping our call centre turnover rates to a very low five per cent”, says Paul Cross, iSelect executive general manager, investor and corporate relations.

If you’ve had a good night’s sleep there are still gains to be enjoyed from a brief nap, but it’s sleep-deprived people who get the most out of it. And that’s most of us, according to Professor James Maas of Cornell University, who says we are in the middle of the biggest sleep deprivation experiment ever conducted.

Since Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, our bed time hours have been shrinking (from 10 to seven hours/night), and the pace of our working and waking hours intensifying. Our heavy reliance on caffeine to get us through the day does nothing to help our brains switch off when we finally do hit the pillow.

"I nap for 20 minutes and feel refreshed and revived." – Katie Weekes, Recruitment Manager, KPMG

No wonder then, that one in three full-time employees and almost one in two working mothers say they feel extremely tired or completely exhausted, all of the time, according to the 2010 Australian Work-Life Index survey.

In his book Sleep for Success Maas reminds us of the costs of such chronic tiredness.  Losing sleep means losing brainpower, with mental functions such as memory, concentration, speed and accuracy heavily compromised. This helps explain why we see a peak in workplace accidents and errors mid-afternoon when we are already pre-disposed to sleepiness.

Sleep researcher Professor Leon Lack of Flinders University has investigated the shortest nap possible that keeps workers perky. Out of the five, 10, 20 and 30-minute nap, he found that the 10-minute nap came up trumps. It caused an immediate increase in alertness, to about the same degree as a half-hour nap did, but without causing any “sleep inertia” or grogginess. And the benefits lasted for the next two and a half hours – enough to get workers through the afternoon, but without interfering with a good night’s sleep.

Napping not only serves as an effective pick-me-up, it can also make us smarter by improving memory, says sleep researcher Dr. Sara Mednick, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Short naps (up to 30 minutes) enhance muscle memory, helping us learn sequential movements. That’s why some professional athletes include napping as part of their training.

Thirty-to-60 minute naps improve verbal memory – helping us to recall information we hear. Longer naps of 60 to 90 minutes improve creative problem solving, according to Mednick’s research.

7 Sleep Aids for Workplace Napping

  • Avoid afternoon caffeine
  • Find a place where you won’t be interrupted – the park, your car, a couch, a room with a “do not disturb” sign or a sleeping pod
  • Gather your napping aids, such as a mat or blanket to put on the floor and an eye mask
  • Set a soft alarm for no more than 25 minutes to avoid feeling groggy afterwards 
  • Release mind-body tension with some simple stretches. Bring your attention to your breathing and allow yourself to drift off 
  • Don’t worry if you don’t fall asleep. You’ll still get benefits from taking time out
  • It can take practice to learn how to slow down your body and mind - so don’t give up after your first attempt.

October 2021
October 2021

Read the October 2021 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.