Are workplace naps risky or refreshing?

07 October 2011 -


You can muddle through work after a sleepless night, but you won’t be at your best. So is business ready to let workers nap it off? We can dare to dream, says Ben Walker

They would be the stuff of nightmares – if only you could sleep. A neighbour’s sound system turned up a notch too high, the air a degree too warm, an ambiguous comment from the boss that causes your mind to race – the margins between a turbulent night and eight blissful hours are often thin. And almost everyone knows the feeling: when insomnia maddens us like an inner itch, when we can’t hold on to the night for the march of the dawn, when striving for what we want most of all is the biggest barrier to getting it. Insomnia hurts. Yet, five nights out of seven, we still have to work in the morning.

So can we muddle through? To some extent, says Professor Jim Horne, of Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre. “Routine tasks are fine,” he says. “But if you are confronted by decision-making, you are more likely to be impaired by lack of sleep.” Thinking on your feet when you are dead on your feet is particularly hard, he adds. “People who are called into work to manage a crisis after only three or four hours’ sleep make plans to get around their problem,” he says, “but if you then tell them the situation has changed and they need to alter their approach, they very often can’t cope with that. They carry on regardless with their original plan – and that’s what floors them. They are less innovative and they often stick to their guns even though they are wrong to do so.”

Vicious circle

Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, points out that, when pilots are given a nap of just 30 minutes on long-haul flights, they experience a 16% improvement in their reaction time. “Non-napping pilots experience a 34% decrease over the course of the flight,” he adds. “The conclusion is inescapable: the more hours we work continuously, the greater the toll on our performance.”

While the effects of a sleep-starved operative are at their most frightening in safety-critical industries such as fire or energy, the efficacy of all organisations is seriously undermined if executives are not in a fit state to make decisions. And the ironic thing is that the work itself is often the cause. “I’m concerned that 30% of people responding to National Sleep Foundation researchers reported sleep problems due to worries at work,” says business blogger Adi Gaskell, who has written extensively on executive sleeplessness. “It starts to become a vicious circle of work worries leading to a lack of sleep, which results in poorer performance at work, and so it goes on.”

These episodes of self-inflicted corporate zombification can be mitigated by light-touch tonics such as coffee or a good walk (see box). Yet to beat sleeplessness there is only one real remedy – erm, sleep. “Naps are worth taking but keep them short,” says Professor Horne. “Staff need to be fit for work. But when staff are tired for perfectly good reasons, they can go away for half-an-hour and lie down for a quick snooze. Once upon a time, if a bloke said he was going for a quick snooze, he was perceived as weak and useless but now he calls them power naps, and he’s fine. So call them power naps!”

Give it a rest

One person who has acted upon that advice is Professor Nigel Nicholson from the London Business School. “I do it myself,” he says. “It’s strongly recommended. I tell people about it and say, ‘after lunch, my door might be closed’. I get down on the floor for 15 or 20 minutes. But, once, my new secretary came in and said ‘Oh!’”

Yet such behaviour may surprise more people than just Professor Nicholson’s secretary. After all, the UK is hardly a dream location for the wannabe napper. Indeed, many traditionalists consider such practices the preserve of Mediterranean and strangely sunny lands. So does Professor Nicholson – an expert in organisational behaviour – really see the idea catching on? “Yes is the answer,” he says. “I do think there are enough companies out there where people will take a flexible view, but it’s a matter of company culture. Some people get uptight about naps and say they don’t see how it can boost productivity. But that’s just stupidity – there’s still a lot of stupidity out there. And employees often worry that doing it will make them seem lazy. In both cases, you are focusing on inputs not outputs. We worry too much about appearances, I think.”

Maybe we do. Schwartz certainly thinks so. “For all the evidence, I’ve yet to come across a single company that actively and enthusiastically encourages employees to take naps,” he says. “A growing number, including Google, provide napping pods and renewal rooms. That’s a great first step, but it’s scarcely the norm to use them. Napping won’t begin to take hold in companies until leaders recognise that it’s not the number of hours people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they’re capable of bringing to whatever hours they work. If encouraging employees to take a half-hour nap means they can be two or three times as productive over the subsequent three hours the value is crystal-clear. The problem is that most corporate cultures remain addicted to the draining ethic of more, bigger, faster. Rest, under this paradigm, is for slackers.” 

Snooze and lose?

How tiresome. There may be a great body of evidence showing the benefits of a quick doze, but many companies remain unaware of it, and even those that are aware remain resistant to it. “It depends on what type of role you are performing,” says Matthew Burrows, president of the Institute of Service Management, managing director of BSMimpact, and a member of the Institute of Consulting. “For people that are customer-facing, particularly those who may be consultants and spend time on customer sites, they may find their clients react badly if they say they are going for a nap. Even for workers who don’t regularly work at client sites, but who are customer-facing, I’m sceptical that you’d find enough immediate appetite for the culture change necessary to make napping acceptable.”

But we can dream. “If you decide that you want to implement power napping in the workplace,” says Burrows, “like other culture changes, you need to answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ questions. Specifically, you need to show that it would be beneficial for the company, the employee and clients. In effect, you need to make a business case. If it makes good business sense, people may be more willing to change their attitude, behaviour and – ultimately – their culture.”

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