Feature Archive

America, It's Time for Your Nap

A workday snooze can relieve sleep deprivation and boost your productivity.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

It's no secret: Americans are chronically sleep deprived. So we're catching up where we can, when we can.

We slip into storage rooms. We sneak to the car. Some lock the bathroom stall just for some shut-eye. And who among us hasn't perfected the computer snooze?

"We're moving toward a 24/7 culture ... life isn't as easy as it used to be," says William A. Anthony, PhD, author of the book The Art of Napping at Work.

By day, Anthony is a clinical psychologist and director of Boston University's Center for Psychological Rehabilitation. He is also a self-described napping ethnographer -- "napographer," as he puts it.

He has uncovered a community of nappers on the Internet. He has surveyed 1,000 randomly chosen Americans, finding that 70% sleep on the job.

People don't nap to recover from last night's party, Anthony says. They nap to make up for early-morning commutes, long work hours, and too many responsibilities at home. After a little nap, they feel more alert and do a better job, they tell him.

Anthony talks to employers about instituting napping policies, and he's serious about it. He's got some well-known experts on his side.

In fact, some American companies are changing their personnel rules to allow a daily nap. The U.S. trucking and rail industries have instituted napping policies. Hospitals are looking into it. In some Asian companies, a nap is required.

"We've had reports from China that there are napping-imposed rules, a time when the lights go down, and everyone has to put their head on the desk and nap," Anthony tells WebMD.

NASA Pilots: Asleep on the Job

Mark Rosekind, PhD, once headed NASA's "Fatigue Countermeasures Program." Today, he is a board member for the National Sleep Foundation and heads up Alertness Solutions in Cupertino, Calif.

"Naps are incredibly beneficial for improving mental alertness," he tells WebMD. "The data are absolutely clear on that."

At NASA, Rosekind led simulation studies about pilot fatigue. During a "flight," each pilot was wired to record brain activity (EEG) and eye activity -- evidence of those split-second periods of "microsleep" that occur when one is dozing off.

  • Pilots who were allowed to take a short nap (40 to 45 minutes) improved their performance by 34% and their alertness by 54%, he reports.

  • In the last 90 minutes of flight, pilots who got naps had 34 microsleeps. Those who weren't allowed to nap had 120 microsleeps.

Such real-world tests apply to us all, he says. "We already know people are sleeping on the job. Their performance and safety are going to suffer if they are sleepy. If we can get performance up by 34% by letting them nap, why not? There's no other motivator, nothing else that pumps up performance that much."

Fighting Sleep: Losing Battle

Only recently have scientists come to understand this phenomenon called "mental fatigue," Robert Stickgold, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD.

With Harvard students as his test subjects, Stickgold has teased out some interesting conclusions.

Students volunteered to perform an hourlong, repetitive task that even Stickgold admits was "sort of tiring." They did it four times a day: at 9 a.m., noon, 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. "Lo and behold, they got worse and worse and worse" as the day wore on, he says.

He then tried a few things to ferret out just what "cured" mental fatigue.

  • He changed the task a bit, and that helped. The students' "work" improved vastly -- performance went right back up to morning levels.

  • A half-hour afternoon nap also helped. Their performance didn't get better, but it didn't get any worse.

  • Even better: After an hour-long afternoon nap, students "bopped back to where they were in the morning" -- but only those who got rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which helps with memory, learning, thinking.

  • What worked best: A 90-minute nap created a "whopping improvement." Those students performed as well as "fresh" students with a full night's sleep, because they all got REM sleep.

The need for sleep -- as with all other biological drives -- involves a disconnect between what the body really needs and what it feels like it needs, Stickgold explains.

"In a funny way, it's as if only a small part of your brain needs sleep," Stickgold tells WebMD. "When this small part becomes saturated -- your inbox is full -- it will signal you."

Say you've been studying all night, and think you're burned out. Then someone shows up with tickets to the midnight show, and you bounce right up and go. You won't actually feel exhausted until 1:30 a.m. when you get home.

When we fight mental fatigue, that's the disconnect we're dealing with, he explains. "There are two ways to deal with burnout -- switch to a different task, or get some sleep," says Stickgold.

Why Not Nap?

If you're plugging away at a deadline, sleep may indeed be your only option. As your eyelids grow heavy, it's too late to fight it. Caffeine can help mask it, but only temporarily.

"When you're sleep deprived, you do get sleepy," says Rosekind. "That signal is so powerful that, if you ignore it, your body will shut down and you will sleep anyway."

Anthony has spoken with employers: "You let people have bathroom breaks, smoking breaks, walk breaks. Why can't they nap on their break instead of lunch or shop? What we're pushing is a simple policy, really: You can do anything on break as long as it isn't immoral or illegal, and that includes napping."

"Union regulations always demand rest breaks," says James Maas, PhD, past chairman of psychology at Cornell University. He has written the book Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance.

The results of chronic sleep deprivation are evident, he says.

"We're arguing that in terms of lifestyle, efficiency, and performance, taking a deep breath in the middle of the day -- a short nap -- is a good idea. Power lunches are accepted, why not power naps? Every worker is allowed a break in afternoon, why not make it something that restores mental health and performance?"

We learned it in kindergarten: A nice afternoon nap is just that -- nice. It makes us less cranky and helps us get back into the fray. It's possibly the best way to combat chronic sleep deprivation in today's world.

Published March 15, 2004.