Napping at Work Can Be So Exhausting

Science overwhelmingly supports a workday snooze, but sleeping on the job is stressful

Four Ways to Nap at Your Desk

For more than a decade now, research has proven the benefits of napping on the job. Yet another study out this summer from the University of Michigan found that participants who took an hour-long nap weathered frustrating tasks better than those who didn't. Science knows that the midday snooze produces all kinds of benefits, including improved memory, increased alertness, and decreased mistakes. There's also some evidence that naps help with creativity and problem solving. At the other end of things, researchers have found that workers lose 11.3 days of work because of sleep deprivation.

As a result of these findings, countless articles over the years have implored tired desk workers to take a sleep break—all in the name of increased productivity. But who really does that? Not me. To see what all the hype is about naps, I tested a napping regime over a four-day period at work, devoting 20 minutes each afternoon to sleep on the job. 

Despite a growing philosophical acceptance of napping and the increase in nap rooms at offices, getting some shut eye at work doesn't make much practical sense. Most work days don't, like kindergarten class, have a built-in nap time. The office can't and doesn't stop for your sleep break. 

Not a simulation: Real office nap.
Not a simulation: Real office nap.

There's the question of where to sleep, especially if there's no nap room. Only 6 percent of companies surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation in 2011 had designated nap rooms. "That’s the crux of the problem," says Christopher Lindholst, founder and chief executive of MetroNaps, which manufactures sleep pods. "Where do you actually go if there is no place in your workspace to take naps? You could lie under your desk, but mostly people don't want to be seen sleeping on the floor." And what about post-nap grogginess? How do you wake up without pillow hair or lines on your face? Won't your co-workers make fun of you?

Overcoming these difficulties would theoretically be worth it in the name of increased productivity and future energy. "The difference comes later in the day, when your cognitive performance tends to deteriorate," says Lindholst. He describes an energy boost in the late afternoon and early evening. "I’m sure you’re familiar with the fatigue you feel when you get home from work." That dip supposedly doesn't happen when you nap at work.

Before getting to napping, I sought out nap experts on what makes the perfect siesta. There are two optimal amounts of time to sleep during the day: 20 minutes or 90 minutes. "If you nap for much longer than 20 minutes you end up going into deep sleep," explains Lindholst. "You experience more sleep inertia when you wake up; it takes you longer to be alert again and get back to work." Nap researchers also recommend a full sleep cycle, to avoid that grogginess, but shutting down for an hour and a half is far less practical during an already busy workday. 

As for when to take a break, Lindholst offers a formula: The midpoint of last night’s sleep plus 12 hours. So if you went to bed at midnight and woke up at 6 a.m., you would schedule a 3 p.m. nap. Other experts are more lenient with their recommendations, suggesting any time between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

For practical reasons, I went with the 20-minute nap at whatever time in the afternoon made sense with that day's schedule. Without a nap room, I had to sleep at my desk, which is a common enough situation to create an entire industry of nap-at-desk gadgets. For my experiment I used a different napparatus to make sleeping in my desk chair more comfortable. 

Napping at work is hard. Shifting from work mode to rest mode can take almost the full 20 minutes. Relax enough to get to the verge of sleep, and suddenly my self-consciousness kicks in: What if I look like a doofus while sleeping? What if I start drooling or snoring? Thoughts about e-mails or potential requests from bosses that I'm missing inhibit relaxation. One day an editor sent me chats while I was sleeping, making me more paranoid about similar incidents happening during future naps. Sometimes an office phone rings or a cell phone vibrates. It's distracting.

The very impractical Emergency Nap Kit.
The very impractical Emergency Nap Kit.

The accessories helped by blocking out noise and light and also, in some cases, offering a head rest, although not all the napping products proved effective. The Emergency Nap Kit, which comes with an inflatable bed and a sleeping-bag body suit, seems more like a gag gift than an actual sleep-at-work tool. The Ostrich Pillow, a viral sensation from a few years ago, is a full head wrap with a hole for breathing and seemed the most promising. But it felt a bit suffocating, and I looked ridiculous. The Wrap-A-Nap proved to be a glorified eye-mask. The NapAnywhere, a cushioned disc that uses a strap to hold up the head with an multistep assembly process, is like a worse version of an airplane neck pillow. 

Nothing was comfortable enough. I never actually managed to fall asleep at work. Yet I still felt benefits from just resting my eyes for 20 minutes. After the initial haze faded, I felt more awake and alert. I wasn't any better at my job, I just felt really awake while procrastinating the late afternoon hours away. Maybe if I had actually fallen asleep I would have felt more creative, productive, and alert. 

If companies really want employees to get the benefits of naps, the culture needs to support sleeping on the clock. One San Francisco company, for example, has a dedicated "siesta supervisor," according to SFGate. Employees ring a nap bell when they want to sleep, alerting the office that they're not to be disturbed while they rest. 

"It’s not enough just to tell people that they take naps at work, you have to provide them a solution," says Lindholst. "We advocate having a sanctioned space where it is accepted and encouraged to nap." It goes beyond the nap room—employers have to make napping feel normal.

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