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Why you should be sleeping on the job

Power naps are making their way into some company policies


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Get caught snoozing on the job, and you might be scouring the Help Wanted ads (or the modern-day equivalent). Back in less enlightened times, Seinfeld’s George Costanza was nearly busted for office-hour sleeping sessions after secretly installing catnap conveniences – an alarm clock shelf, a blanket drawer – under his desk.

Today, though, a growing number of companies are waking up to the benefits of power naps, and some employers are embracing daytime slumber with employer-sponsored nap rooms and snooze-friendly policies.

 Costanza certainly wasn’t alone in his crusade for more sleep: Fatigue and sleepiness are serious issues for working professionals. According to the National Sleep Foundation, for example, 29 percent of employees report falling asleep or becoming very drowsy at work.

That isn’t surprising considering most adults don’t get enough consolidated nighttime sleep. The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep nightly, yet 40 percent of those surveyed through a recent Gallup poll said they catch six hours or less, with the average reported slumber lasting 6.8 hours.

“The average adult is coming up short every night,” says Dr. Robert Ballard, founder of the Colorado Sleep & Pulmonary Center. On top of that, many adults report restless, low-quality sleep. Thirty-five percent of Americans, in fact, classify their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Being part of a world economy keeps professionals up — and 24-hour access to stimulus via screens doesn’t encourage rest, either. Whatever the cause, insufficient sleep translates to poor overall health. Chronic deprivation can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, attention deficit disorder, depression, heart attack and stroke, among other ailments. And, workplace fatigue is associated with increased on-the-job accident rates and has been linked to large-scale disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Conversely, research shows that adequate sleep improves individual health and strengthens the immune system; sleep can also reduce anxiety and depression by minimizing one’s levels of cortisol, a hormone that elevates blood sugar. And, beyond physical wellbeing, sleep improves employee performance, which improves an employer’s bottom line. The loss of productivity associated with employee sleepiness costs the U.S. an estimated $63 billion annually.

“Being overtired is the norm,” Ballard says. “A lot of studies look at the sleep patterns of modern American adults. It all paints a pretty grim picture.”

The good news is, a quick nap can boost alertness and concentration, and improve productivity on the job. “Both objective physiological measures and subjective ratings of alertness demonstrate improvement following a nap taken during periods of sustained wakefulness,” according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

  A nap can maintain or improve performance and alertness for two to 12 hours post-nap, and experiments examining varying nap lengths have shown that 20- to 60-minute naps can be just as effective as longer snoozes. Hence the so-called NASA nap, which gained traction in the 1990s and has become a common practice among pilots flying internationally. One study conducted back in 2008 even proffered that a power nap is more effective than caffeine at increasing alertness and improving perceptual learning.

“Napping 20 to 30 minutes can be very rejuvenating for some people, especially those getting by with five or six hours of sleep at night,” Ballard says. But there’s a caveat: “A lot of people come to this clinic with insomnia as a major complaint. With that disorder, napping is viewed as contraindicative because it becomes what we call rescue sleep, which is something that enables insomniacs to be awake at night.”

Employers respond with pro-nap policies

In stark contrast to the plethora of businesses touting state-of-the-art exercise rooms and company-sponsored 10Ks, some of our country’s most forward-thinking corporations have boldly embraced naps. Google, for example, pioneered workday napping with its introduction of nap pods, futuristic bubbles conducive to quarter-hour power naps.

Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s reportedly maintains a room with a bed and pillows; Zappos, the online shoe retailer, has had a nap room at its Las Vegas headquarters since it launched, and Nike corporate staffers in Oregon have access to quiet rooms, where napping and meditation are welcomed.

“Nike is all about heightened performance. It’s not surprising that they’re on the cutting edge of health and wellness,” says Daniel Ward, corporate wellness consultant and owner of Inward Fitness, a health and fitness firm with corporate wellness programs focused on on-site fitness services and classes.

Ward’s work might be movement-based, but even this fitness guru doesn’t discount the power of rest. “When you look at health, wellness and fitness, one thing that gets ignored is rest and recovery,” Ward says. “Sleep is when your body naturally recovers, and I think it’s hugely important.”

One of Ward’s clients – IQNavigator, based in the Denver Tech Center – recently added two Zen rooms upon remodeling its facility. “There’s soft music and soundscapes available, along with a couch,” Ward says, noting that employees are encouraged to rest, decompress and meditate when needed.

SpireDigital founder and CEO Michael Gellman is a little like George Costanza, saying, “I love a good nap. Sometimes it’s the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning.” Gellman has taken midday naps his entire professional life, and has encouraged his 40 employees to nap since founding his digital production development firm in Denver in 1998.

SpireDigital clients range from the U.S. Army and Navy to Denver Water, Denver International Airport, Coors and Western Union. “Developing digital products is a highly intellectual and complicated pursuit,” Gellman says, adding, “It’s really important that our people are as sharp and creative as they can possibly be.” If he’s got an important meeting on his calendar, you can bet Gellman’s catching a nap beforehand. In fact, he has a recurring block on his calendar from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. that’s devoted solely to napping.

When SpireDigital relocated to Denver’s RiNo neighborhood in 2011, Gellman insisted on incorporating two nap rooms into the floor plan. The rooms are dark, cool and comfortable, with doors featuring in-use slide tabs (think: airport lavatories). One room has two beds, and the other’s outfitted with a big, king-sized bed. “They’re pretty bare bones,” Gellman says.

He estimates that 30 percent of employees take naps once or twice weekly. “A number of our developers, user-experience designers, strategists, account executives, and even our CFO nap,” Gellman says. “Where it really helps is with situations like I’m going through — people with new families who aren’t able to get enough sleep at home.

“Other times, we have employees who are stuck,” Gellman continues. Folks who can’t get to the next level of thinking can escape to a nap room. “From a personal perspective,” he says, “some of my best ideas pop up during or after my naptime.”

The case for work naps by the numbers:

$63 Billion: Cost from lack of sleep to U.S. companies in 2014, according to a study from the Journal of Sleep

45: Percentage of Americans reporting that poor or insufficient sleep negatively impacts their daily activities, according to the National Sleep Foundation

63.7 million: Number of Americans who don’t wake up in the morning feeling refreshed

30 to 64: Age range of those who report the poorest sleep quality

Burst of Energy

Can’t catch midday ZZZs? Skip that quad-shot latte, and try one of these natural tricks for combating workday fatigue:

Snack Smart:
Noshing on healthy food between meals will keep your energy levels stable throughout the day. Try locally manufactured goods, such as Noosa Yoghurt with Boulder Granola or Jackson’s Honest Chips dipped in Hope hummus.  

Hydrate to Dominate:
Drinking water will keep you going strong, and – unlike caffeinated beverages – H2O won’t interfere with getting a solid night’s sleep after you’ve punched out.

  Keep Your Cool:
Warm temperatures have been linked to fatigue; the optimal work environment, then, is cool and comfortable.

Bright Idea:
Dim lighting increases fatigue, which is why we recommend keeping your workspace well lit.

Move It:
If your job requires sustained periods of sitting, make an effort to get up and stretch throughout the day. 

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Jamie Siebrase

Jamie Siebrase is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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