The Science Behind Why We Should All Be Taking Naps at Work


When you're sleep-deprived, your alertness plummets, your forgetfulness skyrockets, you show signs of anxiety and depression and you could be at a higher risk for developing cancer. Your immune system is shot, your hormones are out of whack and you can't tell the difference between a smile and a scowl. If exercise, diet and sleep are the pillars of good health, your crappy rest schedule is what's making your body feel like the wobbly table at a coffee shop. And if you're on the clock, you sure as hell won't get any work done.

Doctors make a simple recommendation: Go the hell to sleep.


"The average American adult during the workweek is sleeping about 6.75 hours a night," Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Mic. "In 1910, the average adult was getting 8.25 hours of sleep a night. That's a demonstrable reduction in something that evolution has spent millions of years putting in place, and it comes with real consequences."

Medical professionals don't care how you get that sleep. Some scientists even say the workday shouldn't start until 10 a.m. to make sure everyone avoids sleep deprivation. But no matter when you start your day, studies show you could greatly benefit from taking a nap in the middle of it.

"Sleeping on the job" is frowned upon in most workplaces, though some modern offices are equipped with nap pods. In popular work culture, paying attention to our circadian rhythms is often replaced with a coffee run. But coffee isn't making the brain stronger; it's making it stay awake. In reality, sleep, not caffeine, is what makes us more productive.


It wasn't always this way. Before electricity, our circadian rhythms made us go to bed with the sun. People would sleep for four hours, get up, light a candle, do a couple things around the house and then go back to bed. Some Mediterranean countries, like Greece, still adhere to a midday sleep pattern: Halfway through the day, they conk out for a little bit before getting back to the grind. In sleep medicine, it's called a biphasic pattern, or two parts.

"The average American adult during the workweek is sleeping about 6.75 hours a night."

In the 1990s, napping actually became rocket science. That's when NASA began examining how naps benefited task performance on missions through increased alertness. "If you screw up a task in space, not only can it be costly for life but it costs you millions of dollars," Walker told Mic. NASA found that even naps as short as 26 minutes improved mission task performance by 34% and saw a 16% increase in median reaction time. The data hatched NASA nap culture, adopted by the agency's workers on the ground.

A 2006 study in Annals of Emergency Medicine observed nurses and physicians working a 12-hour night shift. Workers who napped at 3 a.m., for an average of 25 minutes, showed fewer performance lapses, more energy, less fatigue and less sleepiness than their sleepless counterparts. If you've ever visited an emergency room at 5 in the morning, you know the difference those 20-odd minutes can make.


This is your body on a midday nap: "Look at [naps] like a dry sponge," Walker told Mic. "When you wake up, you're ready to absorb that new information. Without that nap, without enough sleep, or if you pull an all-nighter, those memory circuits effectively become waterlogged, and you can't absorb information effectively."

There's a disparity between how much of a nap you need to be effective. Walker says to aim for 45 to 90 minutes, though that isn't always possible. Dr. Carl Bazil, who runs the Sleep Disorders Center at Columbia University Medical Center, says you'll be fine if you shoot for the neighborhood of 20 minutes.

"It doesn't completely make up for hours of lost sleep," Bazil told Mic, "but it can increase your short-term memory, mood and performance. If you get a 20-minute nap, negativity from sleep deprivation, like impulsivity and frustration, is reduced, and keeps people from making snap decisions in the workplace."

For most people, it's between 1 and 3 p.m. If you get up at 5 in the morning, your lull is probably around 11 or 12. If you get up at 9 or 10, it could be pushed further in the day. If you work a typical 9 to 5, don't push your nap back to 4 p.m. if you want to sleep that night.

The key, overall, is to find what you could call your circadian dip — the time of the day, usually halfway through your wakefulness, when the energy from the morning lulls. For most people, it's between 1 and 3 p.m. If you get up at 5 in the morning, your lull is probably around 11 or 12. If you get up at 9 or 10, it could be pushed further in the day. If you work a typical 9-to-5, don't push your nap back to 4 p.m. if you want to sleep that night.

From the moment you wake up, your brain produces a chemical called adenosine, which is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and suppresses arousal. The longer you're awake, the more adenosine builds up, like steam in a pressure cooker. After about 16 hours of wakefulness, that chemical has built up so much that you have to sleep to release it. If you nap late in the day, you dissipate that pressure, waking up refreshed. And if that occurs too late in the day, you'll have trouble getting to sleep when it matters most.


Not all naps are created equal: Walker and Bazil would probably recommend planned napping, the go-to choice of night owls and party animals. It's the act of getting some shut-eye before you're dragging your feet. 

The less ideal version is what's called emergency napping, in which you can't keep your eyes open — a problem for long drives, operating heavy machinery or pulling your weight on a trivia team. In both napping categories, you should get yourself in the mindset of a power nap: less than 30 minutes of uninterrupted sleep, on the early side of halfway between waking up and going to bed for the night.

But for the love of God, don't nap in your chair. Things like sleeping pods exist for this. 

Joe Logon/Flickr

More recently, a sleeping desk design has made its way around the Internet and into our hearts. But however you do it, you need to be recumbent for a worthwhile rest.

"The problem with sleeping upright, like you do in the classic airplane seat, it actually encourages your airways to collapse," Walker told Mic. "Avoid a position where your back is against a backrest, letting your neck roll farther back so your nose is pointed at the ceiling. It detrimentally restricts your airways so they give way to gravity."

Thankfully, naps are slowly gaining steam in offices around the country. It's time the rest of the world takes note of the sleep programs at larger companies like Google and AOL. Espresso machines might be great office perks — but if companies want to get serious about employee productivity, they should invest in sleep too.