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Ask McArdle: How long can I get away with napping at work?

Science has studied the perfect midday nap, and the magic number is more than 10 minutes—but less than 30

Sleeping employee

Afternoons are a productivity dead zone for me. I’ve heard of CEOs who swear by their midday naps—how long of a nap can an average executive get away with? 

Ask McArdle badgeThe circadian rhythms of the ordinary office worker (homo sapiens corporatus) have fascinated zoologists for decades. Like many members of the species, you’re probably overworked and underslept. With all the research available on the ill effects of having tired workers, it’s a wonder that more companies don’t take a leaf from the kindergarten picture book and schedule mandatory nap times.

Sleepy employees don’t just set their colleagues a-yawning—they’re bad for the bottom line. Fatigue-related productivity losses amounted to $1,967 per employee per year in a 2010 study of more than 4,000 workers, conducted by Alertness Solutions, a consulting firm in Cupertino, Calif.

If you’re not lucky enough to work for a company with a dedicated napping surface (Toronto accounting software firm FreshBooks keeps a twin bed made up for this purpose, while Facebook Canada’s managing director settles for a nearby sofa), your desk will have to do. For $99, you can buy an Ostrich Pillow—a grey contraption with holes for your head and arms that allows you to block out office sound and light. Unfortunately, like the giant flightless bird known for burying its head in sand, you’ll look a little ridiculous using it.

Duration really depends on your workplace and sleep needs. The optimal length fits the accepted wisdom of “power” napping: A 2006 study by researchers at Flinders University in Australia found that 10 minutes produced immediate gains in cognitive performance and vigour that lasted up to two and a half hours, while dozing for 30 minutes actually caused a short spell of ineffective drowsiness. So the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. Or you could simply ask yourself: How long before someone notices you and posts a picture to the Falling Asleep at Work Tumblr. Set your smartphone to wake you a few minutes before that.

Got a management concern? Need to settle a debate? Ask CB’s resident expert in expertise, McArdle: @AskMcArdle