Napping on the Job

Tired at work? Then it might be time to get some midday shuteye.


It’s just past lunch. You need to put the finishing touches on an important project. But when you look at the words, they blur. You feel floppy. You don’t want to work – you want to sleep.

For some people, the afternoon blahs come daily. A 2013 survey by the Virgin Pulse Institute, a Massachusetts-based firm that conducts research on workplace-related health and wellness issues, found that 76 percent of employees feel tired most days of the week, and 15 percent actually doze off at least once a week.

While the survey doesn’t ask how many people feel bad about falling asleep on the job, napping is not usually part of an employee’s job description. But maybe it should be. “Naps can reduce the sleep pressure people are feeling,” says Wendy Hall, professor in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia.

Napping is not usually a part of an employee’s day. But maybe it should be.

People who nap during the day can actually be more productive than those who don’t, says Hall, as that lethargy can really slow you down. That’s why some companies are endorsing midday snoozes. Companies like Google and Apple have nap rooms, but they’re also cropping up at places like the Vancouver Airport and the B.C. Institute of Technology. Most famously, Intuit Canada, which makes QuickBooks software, has three.

If you can steal away, though, you need to be careful about how much time you sleep – nap too long and you’ll still feel groggy. Here’s how to get the most out of your shuteye.

Napping basics

First of all, you need to ask yourself whether or not you should be taking a nap. If you have issues with nighttime sleep, then you might want to think twice about snoozing. “It depends on the person. Can they biologically handle that nap?” asks Alanna McGinn, a sleep educator who runs the Good Night Sleep Site out of Burlington, Ontario. Insomniacs, for instance, want to avoid daytime napping, since it can reduce their sleep drive at bedtime even more.

When it does come time to nap, don’t do it every day. A few times a week is okay, but getting into a daily habit is not only a sign that you may not be sleeping well at night, it could also flip your body’s sense of night and day, says McGinn.

Since our bodies experience a natural energy dip between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., that’s the ideal time to sneak away for shuteye, she says. And because you may not be that productive anyway – and nodding off will be easier – take advantage.

When you do lie down, follow the so-called “sleep hygiene rules.” Go to a dark, quiet, cool room. Set an alarm to help you wake up, and add in an extra five minutes to allow yourself to fall asleep.

Keep it quick

“Short naps are best,” says McGinn. A 15- to 20-minute nap lets you cycle through the very early stages of sleep. “Sometimes that’s all people need to get through the day.”

Hall says not to bother with a micronap of under 15 minutes, as your body won’t cycle through any of the stages of sleep and you won’t see many benefits.

If you can keep it to that 15- to 20-minute length, you should wake up feeling energetic and ready for the rest of your day. This is the nap you want – one that keeps you alert through a long afternoon conference call or a tedious project.

Watch out for medium naps

Shuteye of around 30 to 45 minutes, while ideal for a busy day at home, comes with mixed benefits. You will cycle through the deeper levels of sleep, so you’ll rebuild your immune system and chip away at a bit of sleep debt. But you’ll get up in the deep-sleep stages and will have what’s called sleep inertia. “You’re going to feel terrible,” says McGinn – and you’ll likely drag yourself from the nap room to the coffee machine.

While the sleep inertia will wear off after a few painful minutes, only go for this nap length if you’re utterly knackered but don’t have time for a longer snooze.

Ideally, if you’re taking a long nap, try to keep it to an hour. Some people – and everyone is different – might have cycled through most of the sleep stages by then and can avoid sleep inertia. If not, grab a latte and get back to your day as quickly as you can. Hall says to avoid driving for at least 15 minutes after such a nap.

Longer can be better

To get all the health and regenerative benefits of a midday snooze, experts suggest setting the alarm for a 90-minute true zonk-out.

This lengthy nap will let you go through all the four stages of sleep, then the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage, and then you’ll cycle to a lighter stage again. You’ll feel rested, and if you have serious sleep debt because of travel or too many Netflix marathons, this will help get you back on track.

Use this serious nap before a presentation (you’ll have memorized more from your morning of prep), when you’re fighting off a cold or when you have a late-afternoon squash game you want to ace.

Now back to bed

Nap with an eye to still protecting your evening sleep. Go to bed and wake up around the same time daily if you can, and avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed. Understand that the light from electronics can undermine sleep, too. Above all, treasure your sleep and try to get as much as you can, any way you can. It makes you healthier, happier and more productive when you’re awake.

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