Sleeping on the job is taboo in most Australian workplaces, but in much of the world it’s common and very much encouraged. Parts of Europe, South America and Asia have a napping culture where workers pop home for a siesta or sleep at their desk for a short period.
And contrary to what your manager might think, napping is not akin to slacking off. In fact, research shows short naps can help you to work more efficiently.
The benefits of napping
Naps can boost on-the-job performance, improving cognitive function, short-term memory, reaction times and mood. Studies have shown the benefits are comparable to the mental boost experienced after consuming caffeine minus the side effects of caffeine dependence and possible sleep disruptions at night.
If you’re not getting enough shut eye – indeed, a 2016 survey found more than one-third of Australians get inadequate sleep – naps are especially beneficial, said Professor Dorothy Bruck, chair of the Sleep Health Foundation.
“Napping counteracts the effects we might have accumulated with sleep deprivation,” she said.
“If you’re feeling a bit sleep deprived and your ability to work is being a little bit impaired, you can’t concentrate as well and your memory is shot, then that signals that a short nap could be beneficial to give you back the ability to function cognitively.”
Plus, by increasing total daily sleep time, naps can also reduce the risk of chronic disease.
“If you don’t get enough sleep over the long term you’re at greater risk of health concerns like obesity, type 2 diabetes and mood disorders,” said Dr Stephanie Centofanti, a research fellow at the Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Centre at the University of South Australia.
When and how long to nap
A short nap of around 20 to 30 minutes will improve your alertness and concentration. Any longer and you risk sleep inertia – that groggy feeling when you first wake up, which Professor Bruck said can impair the ability to concentrate for up to half an hour after a nap.
Some people are particularly prone to sleep inertia. These workers should avoid scheduling important tasks or meetings straight after a nap, Dr Centofanti said.
“If you’re in a job that involves communicating with other team members, for example, your communication skills might be impaired after you wake up from a nap,” she said.
The best time to nap is between around 2pm and 3pm when your body clock experiences a natural dip.
“If you’re sleep deprived, that’s when you’re going to feel sleepiest and be able to fall asleep best on a desk nap or any other sort of nap,” Professor Bruck said.
“That’s when you’ll feel the most benefit from a nap.”
Customise the napping environment
You’re more likely to sleep well in a quiet, dark place with a comfortable temperature. If this isn’t your workplace, make adjustments: find a spare office or meeting room, close the blinds, put on an eye mask and ear plugs or bring along a blanket.
Lean back rather than forward onto the desk if possible. “If you’re lying down or lounging backwards and resting your head, you’re going to get a deeper sleep than if you’re sitting upright at your desk with your head down,” Dr Centofanti said.
And if your co-workers are too noisy or the lights too fluorescent, there are cognitive benefits to just closing your eyes and resting.
“When you spend lots of time continuously on one task, so maybe you’re entering data in a spreadsheet and you need to be really accurate and not make mistakes, the longer you do that task, the more likely you are to make an error – we call it the ‘time on task’ effect,” Dr Centofanti said.
“Simply taking a break and putting your head down and relaxing can be better for your cognitive performance than continuing on with work if you’re feeling tired or fatigued.”