It's Official: Doctors Say Adults Need Naps At Work

Whenever my superiors catch me snoozing under my desk—full Costanza style, naturally—I tell them the same thing, "A happy worker is a well-rested worker, boss." And while I'm subsequently packing my things into a cardboard box, all I do is think about offices like Google, that actually have dedicated nap spaces for their workers.

To back up my claims, I talked to sleep expert Dr. Daniel Barone of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, about how napping at work can improve productivity. Turns out, he's in full support of the work day nap time.

Hi doc, so what can a daytime nap do for your average worker?

Dr. Barone: A short nap can definitely help improve alertness, productivity, and even overall happiness in a worker. There have been a lot of studies—including one by NASA, that suggest a 40-minute nap improved alertness in astronauts by a substantial amount. A recent study out of France showed that after a night of sleep deprivation, people get an inflammatory response—the body does not like to be sleep deprived. A quick nap the next day actually reduced that inflammatory response, so it's beneficial not only regarding how they feel, but also what’s going on inside the body.

And what time of the day should we be taking these naps?

Our bodies have what's called a circadian rhythm. Normally after lunchtime, our energy levels dip, naturally. That would be the best time to have a nap. You don’t want to nap too late in the day, because that can actually inhibit your ability to fall asleep at night. Usually, early afternoon is the best time for a quick nap.

How long should we be napping?

Nap for 20-30 minutes only. That will put you into what we call the non-REM 1 and 2 levels of sleep. If you sleep for longer than that, you'll enter REM level 3 sleep, also called delta wave sleep.

Why are short naps better?

If you wake up without fully completing a cycle, you'll get what we call sleep inertia, which basically will make you feel worse than you did before you even took the nap. I'm sure we've all experienced that. You wake up and feel terrible, and want to go back to sleep. 20 to 30 minute naps prevent that. A full sleep cycle typically happens every 90 minutes or so, and ends with a period of REM. Napping that long will also reduce what we call “sleep pressure." At the end of the night when you should be tired and able to easily fall asleep, your body will think it has already slept if you are taking long naps during the day, leading to problems like insomnia.

What happens when we don't get enough sleep?

Day to day, it leads to irritability, cognitive problems, and difficulty concentrating. Being sleep deprived affects every part of our psyche. We become irritable, and less able to deal with problems as they come about, leading to anxiety and depression. Scientists and doctors have done studies where they have run tests on subjects that were sleep deprived, and their alertness was affected dramatically. But when they were interviewed, they said they got used to their shortened sleep schedule, and felt fine. In reality, their concentration was suffering drastically. A lack of sleep will definitely affect your ability in the workplace.  

Are Americans getting enough sleep? Can naps help offset that?

No, we aren't. As a society we are getting on average an hour less of sleep than we were one hundred years ago. Which is a significant amount. We need about seven to eight hours a night, and most people aren't getting that. A daily nap can offset some of that lack of sleep.

How do these quick naps help, exactly?

Well, that brings up question: what is the purpose of sleep? No one really knows the definitive answer, actually. The brain is only a small percentage of our body weight, but uses 20% of our glucose; needless to say, an active brain takes a lot of energy. Offsetting that with normal sleep patterns is obviously beneficial, but even getting those 20 minutes of rest can recharge you a little bit.

Are there any downsides to napping?

Yes. I frequently will refrain from recommending naps to some patients, because it can be a slippery slope. As I said before, naps late in the day, or longer than 20-30 minutes, can lead to problems going to sleep at night. If you aren't very regulated and strict with your nap routine, it could be a problem.

Let's say you're the CEO of a company. Would you give your employees nap time?

I would. I think it's a good idea. I think it would increase productivity, and it would offset that after-lunch slow down we all experience. I think it would make people happier and able to handle the demands of work better. It should not be used as a substitute for a good night of sleep, though.

Do you get nap time at work?

I wish I did.

Maybe you should show your boss this article!

Ha. Okay.

Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Supercompressor. He took 12 naps while writing this. And they all paid off. Follow him @Wilfulton.

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