I used to try to nap at the office. It didn’t go very well. Occasionally I’d duck into the privacy room to lie down on a yoga mat, but I was always conscious of the risk that someone else might need it more—a new mom who needed to pump, a manager about to have a sensitive conversation.
Google sleep pods and Zappos’ aquarium-outfitted massage chairs aside, most offices aren’t exactly designed to encourage a quick forty winks. Companies want to see workers engaged and alert at their desks, not curled up underneath them. But the broad shift to remote work thanks to Covid-19 means that for many white-collar folk with drooping eyelids, plush beds now beckon temptingly from just a few feet away. “Never was a nap person in The Before and yet here we find ourselves,” Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, recently observed of her own altered habits on Twitter. Indeed, the contemporary workplace could well be on the brink of a golden age of napping, ending the stigma that often surrounds the practice at last.
As I can testify firsthand, napping while working from home can feel like a betrayal of trust, a breach of the social contract that assumes that you’re still hammering away even when your manager can’t see you. Several friends reached out to me while I was working on this article to confess that they, too, belong to the fellowship of furtive work-from-home nappers, while others said that they were too ashamed to slumber. “I really struggle with the concept of napping,” one pregnant friend said. “Like, I am desperate to do it sometimes, but really beat myself up about it.”
But there’s no need to feel guilty about napping on the clock, according to James Maas, a former professor of psychology at Cornell University and CEO of Sleep for Success, who coined the term “power nap” while consulting with IBM more than 40 years ago. His stance on the matter is firm: “Napping isn’t lazy, it’s smart.”
Why napping makes us more productive
That’s particularly true in light of the chronic sleep deprivation experienced by many adults: 35% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while the average person in the UK gets six hours and 19 minutes of rest. The stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic and its economic fallout has only made it harder for people to get sufficient rest. An August 2020 global survey from the sleeping app SleepCycle found that 37% of people reported taking longer to fall asleep.
Drifting off for 20 minutes after lunch isn’t a substitute for getting a good night’s sleep. But there’s ample evidence of the benefits of naps when we’re feeling drowsy. As sleep scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research explain in a recent letter to the editor published in the journal Sleep, research shows that “brief daytime naps of 10-20 minutes decrease subjective sleepiness, increase objective alertness, and improve cognitive performance. Daytime napping facilitates creative problem solving and logical reasoning, boosts the capacity for future learning, and consolidates memories.”
The long and short of it, according to Maas, is that “in terms of company productivity, you will be a much better worker if you’re wide awake.” He points out to studies showing that performance tends to suffer between 1-3 pm or 2-4 pm, the times of day when our circadian rhythms predictably dip. (Anesthesiologists, for example, are significantly more likely to make mistakes between 3 pm and 4 pm—perhaps something to keep in mind if you’re ever scheduling a surgery.)
Maas recommends keeping naps under 30 minutes for best results: “Any longer than that and you’re going to go into a deeper sleep and wake up groggy,” he explains. Shorter naps also lessen the risk that you’ll have trouble falling asleep at night. And since many of us are already working from home in sweatpants and nap dresses, we can transition from desk to bed and back again with nary a wrinkle—except, perhaps, the pillow creases on our cheeks.
Napping and the mind-body balance
Plenty of high-achieving people and cultures have long been hip to the fact that napping can be a part of a good day’s work. The Muslim prophet Muhammad was a proponent of midday napping, and Islam encourages the practice known as qailulah. The medieval emperor Charlemagne purportedly napped for two to three hours in the afternoon, and he certainly got a lot of conquering done. Winston Churchill napped while leading Great Britain through World War II, writing in his memoir of the “blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.” (If Churchill wasn’t worried that the world would end if he conked out for a bit, surely the rest of us can afford a nap too.)
Siestas, while not enjoyed by the majority of workers in Spain these days, are nonetheless traditional in many Latin American and Mediterranean countries. And in Japan, exhausted workers may even doze off during meetings, a practice known as inemuri, which translates into “sleeping while present.” (This is considered acceptable since the workers have made an effort to attend: “We Japanese have the Olympic spirit—participating is what counts,” one worker tells the BBC.)
But for all this precedent, it has perhaps never in the history of work been so easy for so many to nap as it is today. And so remote workers who have the option of napping should seize the opportunity to do so, helping to normalize it in the process.
The stigma around workplace napping, after all, is part and parcel of hustle culture, which valorizes self-denial and assumes (wrongly) that we produce our best work when we push ourselves nonstop. It’s also tied up with the problem of presenteeism—the pressure that some remote workers feel to demonstrate to their colleagues and bosses that they are always available, ready to answer a Slack message or hop on a call at a moment’s notice.
But the reality is that we’re only human, with very human needs to do things like sleep and run errands and go to the doctor and help our kids/pets/roommates/partners when they hurt themselves or make a mess in the living room. Perhaps if we start admitting that to ourselves and one another, we can help create shifts in workplace culture to accommodate more of our humanity, too.
So the next time you’re feeling sleepy in the mid-afternoon, the responsible thing to do—for yourself, your employer, any people you might be anesthetizing that day, and the future knowledge workers of post-industrial capitalism—is listen to your body’s quite natural demands and take a snooze. Afterward, you may even want to talk about it like it’s perfectly normal, and in this way, help make it so.