Wellness

Why You Should Be Paid to Nap

Midday napping may sound like an extravagant indulgence that coddles workers. And it's true that employees reap considerable advantage. But the ultimate beneficiaries of allowing for rest are the companies that create the conditions for optimal functioning.
01/07/2015 09:15am ET | Updated March 9, 2015

An exclusive book excerpt from The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace (Penguin Random House/Perigee) by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

It's 2:14 p.m.

Your eyelids are feeling heavy, and now you're stifling a yawn. A few minutes ago you arrived back in the office, fresh off a satisfying lunch. But now you're in the throes of what is undeniably a mid-afternoon crash.

You reach for your coffee mug and head for a refill when a coworker stops you in the hall. He's discovered an alternative treatment, he tells you. Like caffeine, it improves concentration and alleviates drowsiness. But it won't give you heartburn or heighten your blood pressure. It's also been clinically proven to elevate your mood, enhance your creativity, and improve your memory.

Sound too good to be true?

It turns out that you used to use this technique all the time. So did your ancient ancestors. It's called napping.

Now, before you dismiss the idea of workplace napping out of hand (as I did before conducting the research for this book), consider the facts. As sleep researcher Sara Mednick notes in her book, Take a Nap! Change Your Life, 20-to 30-minute naps have been shown to:

-- boost productivity

-- increase alertness

-- quicken motor reflexes

-- improve accuracy

-- strengthen stamina

-- improve decision making

-- elevate mood

-- enhance creativity

-- bolster memory

-- lower stress

-- reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol

-- lessen the frequency of migraines and ulcers

-- promote weight loss

-- minimize the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer risk

Not bad for about the same amount of time it takes to visit a Starbucks.

Some studies have shown that learning after a nap is as effective as learning after an entire night's sleep. So why do most of us scoff at the idea of a mental reboot when our bodies signal the need for rest?

In part, it's because we misunderstand napping.

Because our energy levels dip after lunch, we tend to think feeling drowsy is a consequence of having eaten too much. However, research shows that people are equally drowsy eight hours after waking, whether or not they've had lunch beforehand. If you find this hard to believe (as I did), consider the way you feel after breakfast. The first meal of the day energizes us. Why not the second?

Another napping misconception stems from the fact that people occasionally wake up from a midday rest feeling groggy or find that it disrupts their evening sleep cycle. This problem arises if you allow yourself to sleep too deeply. Unlike nighttime rest, which involves all five stages of the sleep cycle, napping is most effective when we wake before our bodies descend into deep sleep.

We have a biological need for rest that is no less pressing than our biological need for food or water. When we're tired, less blood flow reaches the areas of our brain that are critical to thinking. We're also less capable of forming long-term memories. Sure, we can power through the midday slog when we need to -- but only at a reduced level of functioning.

Perhaps the biggest reason that we continue to look down on naps, as Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, has noted, is that we have been misled into equating hours on the job with productivity. If you believe that performance is entirely a function of effort, you see anyone who takes a break as a slacker.

In the past, this view had merit. Line workers' value was tied to the amount of hours they put in on the factory floor. But the vast majority of us don't work in a factory anymore. In today's knowledge economy, it's the quality of your thinking that matters most, and quality thinking is directly tied to energy level.

A related argument can be made for the growing importance of maintaining a positive mood. In a world in which most jobs involve building interpersonal connections and fostering collaborations, feeling irritable can have serious implications for performance. Research shows that when we're tired, we get into more disagreements, and not just because we're less patient. It's because our ability to read other people diminishes.

A brief midday rest recharges our minds and allows our memories to consolidate. It relaxes our mental filters and allows unconventional ideas to surface. It reenergizes our ability to concentrate and restores our emotional composure.

Slowly the tide is changing on workplace napping. In fact, some organizations are so convinced that sleep improves performance, they're investing thousands of dollars every year in encouraging employees to literally sleep on the job. Among the more generous spenders are Huffington Post-AOL, P&G, and Cisco, all of which have installed Energy Pods in their offices. Retailing at about eight thousand dollars, the Energy Pod represents the Rolls-Royce of napping accommodations. Climb into the futuristic-looking capsule and you'll find yourself reclining on a leather couch that tilts your feet above your heart, improving circulation. A visor prevents light from entering, while ambient sounds slowly lull you to sleep. After 20 minutes of peaceful restoration, a timer goes off, waking you with a gentle vibration.

Yahoo! and Time Warner outsource their napping to local spas that allow employees to recharge in private rooms, complete with aromatherapy and a selection of nature soundtracks. Zappos, Ben & Jerry's, and even Nike (Nike!) designate in-office "quiet rooms" for employees to sleep or meditate.

Not every workplace is fortunate enough to have sufficient space for a quiet room. But that didn't stop Workman Publishing. This New York City publishing house distributes yoga mats and eye masks, and encourages employees to nap behind room dividers or underneath their desks (George Costanza-style).

Midday napping may sound like an extravagant indulgence that coddles workers. And it's true that employees reap considerable advantage. But the ultimate beneficiaries of allowing for rest are the companies that create the conditions for optimal functioning.

No reasonable person expects to visit a gym and lift weights continuously without break. We openly acknowledge the limitations of our muscles. But we don't do so for our minds. Declining performance is not as readily visible to us in the office as it is in the weight room, and so we continue plodding along, oblivious to the fact that we are contributing at a fraction of the rate we were earlier.

Ignoring the body's need for recuperation or drugging it into submission may keep workers awake. What it won't do is position them to deliver their best performance.

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