You Snooze, You Win

Research by sleep specialists shows naps significantly boost performance.

Some employees do it behind closed doors. Others sneak into bathroom stalls. But when communications assistant Mindy Looney feels stressed or sleepy, she takes a catnap–right in the middle of her office.

An employee at design firm GouldEvans based in Kansas City, Mo., Looney was told at her interview five years ago that she could use the company's “spent tent”–a blue camping number outfitted with a sleeping bag, eyeshades and soothing music–whenever she felt drained. Still, the 28-year-old admits she was a little apprehensive about snoozing on the job the first time. “It felt kind of weird to be in a tent in the office,” she says. Surely even at a progressive workplace, midday shuteye could be considered a career-limiting move.

Science suggests that perhaps it shouldn't be. Research by sleep specialists shows a 20-minute-to-one-hour nap significantly boosts performance. Even a lie-down before a long shift or an all-nighter can improve alertness by about 30%. Carlyle Smith, a professor of psychology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., says short slumbers help with assimilating new learning, as well. “There's a magic jump in performance, just by sleeping,” he says. “If you let people take an hour nap, it seems almost equal to a night of sleep in their increase in learning new things.”

Even with a good night's sleep, the human body is hard-wired to rest in the afternoon. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. (and at the same period in the morning), there is a natural dip in our circadian rhythm, an internal flux and flow of wakefulness over the course of 24 hours. When that happens, everything from motor skills and co-ordination to critical thinking and creativity suffers. So does the bottom line: the National Sleep Foundation, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, claims U.S. companies lose about US$18 billion a year because employees aren't functioning at their best.

To avoid accidents, as well as to promote overall employee wellness and performance, Calgary-based petrochemical company Nova Chemicals Corp. introduced “recovery rooms” in 1993. Primarily for the use of night-shift workers, they are furnished with La-Z-Boy chairs and alarm clocks. There are no beds, though, since a deeper REM (or rapid eye movement) sleep leaves you groggy about an hour after waking. “People think it's like sleeping on the job,” says Wendy Joel, leader of occupational health and hygiene, “whereas it's very different than that because it's in a controlled environment.” At select Canadian and U.S. locations, Nova employees have 10 minutes to prepare for sleep, 20 minutes to nap, and 10 minutes to get alert. About 32% do so on a regular basis.

Financial software company Intuit Canada also has resting rooms, both in its Edmonton head office and in Calgary. The facilities have single beds, fresh linens and extra blankets, and are used daily by everyone from software engineers to contact-centre employees. “It's like a recharge period,” says Cheryll Watson, site services manager.

Ironically, just as North American research is revealing benefits to power napping, the long-held tradition of the siesta is disappearing in Latin America and Europe. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that fewer than a quarter of Spaniards were sleeping during the workday; six years ago, Mexico shortened the country's lunches to one hour from two to save on energy costs. Urbanization is partly to blame for interrupting nap time. Long commutes in cities such as Barcelona led some employees to spend siesta in their cars. More women in the workplace also transformed the custom, formerly centred around family time and a large home-cooked meal.

But the shift away from the siesta is mostly about image. Operating in a global market, everyone wants to appear nose-to-the-grindstone. Fernando Espinosa, in charge of economic affairs for the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa, says that asking people about the siesta in his country can elicit surprise–even offence. “They would feel like a stereotype,” he says. “It's sort of a faux-pas.”

Image is at issue closer to home, as well. While work-life balance was endlessly hyped in the 1990s, downsizing signalled a return to professional machismo. Says Ronald Burke, a professor of organizational behaviour at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto: “The phrase 'face time' has been proposed to describe how critical it is for people to be seen at work and working.”

To keep our eyes on the ball, many of us rely on jolts of caffeine. That stimulates our nervous system for a few hours, but it also causes lethargy after the buzz wears off and can lead to a lighter night of sleep. And, according to Smith, caffeine doesn't reverse our propensity for errors–tragic or otherwise–the way a short sleep does. “The businessman who wants to put in those long, long hours to get those projects done or put a new business up–if he could nap, he'd do it better,” says Smith. “There's no question about that.”

John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali certainly reaped the benefits of regular midday snoozing. So did Winston Churchill, who got in 40 winks even at the height of the Second World War. “Don't think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day,” Churchill insisted. “That's a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination.” Success could be just a daydream away.

The Science Of Snoozing

Sleep is not one long state of unconsciousness. As Dr. James Maas explains in his book Power Sleep, it actually consists of five stages, ranging from a light rest to what he calls “as close to hibernation as you get.” At various points in this cycle we also travel in and out of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is when we dream most frequently and vividly, and it is vital to our daytime performance.

Getting good zzz's is key not only to feeling alert, but also to regulating digestion and immunity, as well as processing information in the brain, among other functions. And yet, while eight hours is considered an optimal night's rest, Canadian sleep expert Carlyle Smith of Trent University estimates we are only getting an average of six or less.