The power of the power nap

The power of the power nap

Almost 40% of workers in the US say they take regular naps while working remotely and some people say it can boost productivity and creativity. But does the end of remote work mean saying goodbye to weekday naps? Or are companies waking up to the idea that sleep could be an important part of the work day?

Before the pandemic, Jesse David Thé, the founder of tech company Tauria in the Hague, Netherlands, never used to sleep during the day. But when his company started working remotely, he began to nap sometimes for two hours at a time. “It wasn’t necessarily in the afternoon,” he says. “When sleep came over me, I’d go and rest my eyes for a bit. Working from home gave me the option and my body just started getting accustomed to it.”

This was also the case for Kaitlyn Rayment, a tech consultant in Denver, Colorado. Shifting to remote work at her company meant that her working hours were flexible. She says, “I got used to napping in the afternoon. It wasn’t something that was restricted given the fact that we didn’t have fixed working hours any more.”

In May 2020, one study found that 33% of US workers who had switched to remote work had started to take naps during the working day. One-third of these didn’t even set an alarm before settling down for some daytime shut eye. Almost a year later, a study from February 2021 found these numbers held steady, with 38% of workers napping for an average of nine hours during the work week.

Since the pandemic began, working from home has given many people the chance to rethink their routines away from the eyes of colleagues and bosses. Now a return to the office could mean shifting back to the old rules that used to govern our work lives. Does this mean saying goodbye to naps?

A boost for memory, productivity and creativity

For some, napping has always been part of their work routine. Perry Zhang, an engineering manager in Seattle, Washington, has been an “avid fan” of power naps since the beginning of his career. “I’ve done it all,” he says. “From taking naps in the break room to right on my desk when my manager wasn’t around.” Remote work made it easier to incorporate sleep into his daily schedule. “I realised there were so many benefits to napping. After a nap, I feel refreshed. I am more productive. I work faster and the quality of my work increases,” he says.

Sara Mednick, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, says that the benefits of napping can be profound. “A nap is as good as a night of sleep for memory, perception, processing and creativity,” she says. A 2021 study by MIT has also found that naps can boost productivity, with employees working in data entry jobs becoming 2.3% more productive on days when they were allowed to take a 30-minute nap in the morning or in the afternoon. Additional nighttime sleep had a minimal impact on productivity.

Naps are especially important during the work day, according to Mednick. “The bottom line is that humans are not able to continue to work at the same level all day long,” she says. Her research has found that throughout the day – especially for people working on repetitive or unstimulating tasks – our attention spans, perceptual ability and even sight diminish. Mednick says, “We can’t maintain our attention. The best way to combat this is with daytime sleep.”

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Reducing the stigma of sleep

Despite the possible benefits, the stigma around workplace napping means those who do sleep during the workday can be seen as lazy or disorganised, but Mednick believes these attitudes are slowly changing. She wrote her first book on the power of naps in 2006 and says since then “the world is really a different place in terms of understanding that people can’t just be enslaved to schedules that don’t work for them”. Her own research laboratory is a “very nap positive” place, partly due to the subject matter of the research being done and also because researching sleep is a 24-hour job. Working with long and irregular hours means naps are recognised as part of the work schedule in a similar way as it is for medical staff in hospitals.

Even in an office with regular hours, Zhang has found that attitudes towards napping have improved in his workplace since the start of the health crisis. When he returned to work in person, he campaigned for a flexible schedule that would allow workers to take short naps between tasks and was successful. “My company didn’t have a nap culture before the pandemic, but they’ve started to implement one,” he says. “There is a dedicated nap room for us now and each department also has a nap pod for workers who want to take a rest near their desk.”

Mednick says the quality of napping is not significantly improved by lying down in bed, or a sleep pod, compared with putting your head down on your desk – as long as you’re getting at least five minutes of sleep. But that’s not Thé’s experience. Since he has gone back to work, he has found himself unable to nap, partly because he feels he cannot sleep without lying down and partly because he “can’t imagine” napping around his colleagues.

Recognising the importance of rest

Inability to nap in a workplace setting is an issue for would-be workplace nappers who can’t fully relax at work either due to stress, feeling that falling asleep isn’t appropriate or reluctance to be vulnerable.“If you don’t feel safe you can’t go to sleep. That’s your fight or flight system,” Mednick says. In Thé’s case, he has found his need for naps has “simply disappeared” now he is back in his office, surrounded by the stimulation of work and colleagues. “I realised that my body does not require a nap any more,” he says.

The same is true for many people. Mednick says that while roughly 50% of people find napping restorative, the other half get little benefit from a midday sleep. “They wake up with something called sleep inertia feelings of drowsiness and disorientation, and they feel really groggy and bad,” Mednick says. Instead non-nappers (or nappers who cannot nap at work) may benefit from other restorative activities that allow them to switch into a “downstate”.“That can be with meditation, exercise … or even what you eat can really shift the balance between rev meaning an active state and restore,” Mednick says.

Evidence suggests that these two states are already at play in the workplace, whether employers approve or not. In a 2020 study from the UK, the average worker said they were productive for only about two hours and 53 minutes every day, with the rest of the time spent on “distractions” that gave them intermittent breaks such as talking to colleagues, preparing food and reading the news. Of those surveyed, 54% said these distractions actually made them more productive overall.

Some companies are starting to recognise this. Rayment has now returned to work in the office part-time and has found that resting is still a part of her work routine. When working from home, she is still on a flexible schedule and free to nap in the afternoons. In the office she is on fixed hours, which means no time for naps, but she says time away from her desk is now encouraged. Nearly 18 months since the health crisis began, she says there is “an understanding that employees can take a break from work during the day” wherever they are working.

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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