Let’s Make Napping a Regular Part of the Workday

Ray Williams
8 min readDec 1, 2021
Image: Forbes.com

People who take a nap during the day can be viewed to be lazy and less productive. Not according to research. In fact, taking a nap can make you more productive and healthier.

According to a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center, a third of U.S. adults nap on any given day. For people who don’t get enough sleep during the night, daytime naps can improve alertness and motor performance.

Research by Matthew Walker at the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a “biphasic” sleep schedule (sleep at night, nap in afternoon) not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter.

Famous people like Winston Churchill, Leonardo Da Vinci and John F. Kennedy took their afternoon nap as a lifetime habit.

Arianna Huffington, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog contends “we’re experiencing a transition with regard to well-being. An increasing number of employers and employees alike are acknowledging that the current model of success isn’t working, and is in fact leading to burnout, stress, decreased productivity, and — an epidemic especially resonance to me.” Huffington cites the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine’s Corporate Leadership Summit in 2013 where representatives from prominent American companies including Wal-Mart, Procter and Gamble, and Eli Lilly discusses how business can partner with sleep experts and organizations to meet the health challenges associated with sleep problems. An estimated one quarter of large U.S. businesses at that time offered employees some type of stress reduction programs, such as meditation, yoga or napping.

Tony Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, and New York Times, argues “If encouraging employees to take a half hour nap means they can be two or three times as productive over the subsequent three hours late in the day — and far more emotionally resilient — the value is crystal clear.”

The Impact of Remote Work Due to COVID

With large numbers of people working remotely at home because of COVID, and companies supporting that arrangements, napping becomes easier for employees. A survey of 1,000 work-from-home employees conducted by Digital.com found that nearly three-quarters want to be able to take a nap or squeeze in a workout during the workday.

Perfected at home without the watchful eye of others, workers all over have embraced the downtime and created time for an afternoon sleep, The Wall Street Journal reported: “Many people returning to offices in the coming months face an end to one of the secret perks of working from home: the daily nap. People who say they rarely napped before the pandemic have picked up the habit over the past year, worn out by dramatic work-life balance challenges that have extended the work day, Zoom fatigue, insomnia and the simple fact that remote work makes short snoozes possible.”

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What are the Benefits of Napping?

It Can Boost Your Immune System

Sleep deprivation takes a toll on your neuroendocrine and immune functions by increasing inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, as well as stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. A 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism t took 11 healthy young men and restricted them to a night of only two hours of sleep. Blood and urine tests measured higher cytokines and levels of norepinephrine in both groups after sleep deprivation. The following day, one group was given two half-hour naps, while the control group did not have any naps. Blood and urine samples of those who napped showed that their cytokines and norepinephrine levels had returned to normal, as though they had never lost a night of sleep.

It Can Improve Night Time Alertness

For night workers, sleep can be a problem. However, several studies have shown that naps from between 30 minutes and four hours long that are taken in advance of the shift — what’s known as a “prophylactic nap” — improve performance and alertness. These naps can also improve nighttime driving alertness on the way home from the shift.

It Can be Effective in Maintaining Alertness

Surgeons must often perform continuous surgery for hours longer than the average person would ever have to persist at a task. A 1994 study in the journal Ergonomics found that naps were indeed effective at keeping surgeons who had to remain awake for 24 hours alert.

It Can Improve Daytime Alertness

Daytime napping also appears to improve mental alertness and performance, according to a number of laboratory studies. However, researchers found that shorter naps were more effective than longer ones. The most effective time of them all was 10 minutes, which produced the best outcomes in all sleep measures including “subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance.” A 30-minute nap could produce the same effects but brought about “a period of impaired alertness.”

It Can Help You Learn New Skills

If you want to get better at learning a new skill, you might want to take more frequent naps. A 2006 study in Biological Physiology broke participants into two groups: those who napped frequently and those who napped sporadically. Each group was given a nap before a reading task. Habitual nappers — people who reported napping frequently — did better on the reading and retention task. Researchers determined that the brains of habitual nappers consolidated motor learning better, which is part of the process of learning a new skill.

It Can Improve Your Physical Stamina

It turns out that napping is not only just good for mental processes, but has a positive impact on physical stamina and performance as well. A 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences put 10 healthy men through a series of sprints before and after a 30-minute, post-lunch nap. Sprint times improved after the naps, suggesting to the researchers that a post-lunch nap “improves alertness and aspects of mental and physical performance following partial sleep loss.” They suggest that napping may be an important part of the regimens of athletes who are undergoing restricted sleep during training or competition.

It Can Improve Your Memory

One of the many functions of regular nighttime sleep is to consolidate memory. A 2010 study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory set out to see whether daytime naps also improve memory processes, particularly associative memory (the ability to make connections between unrelated objects). Thirty-one healthy participants were given a learning task at 12 p.m. to memorize two sets of face-object photograph pairs. The objects in each pair occurred in both sets but were paired with different faces. Participants were broken into two groups: those who had a 90-minute daytime nap or those who did not. At 4:30 p.m., participants who napped showed notably better retention of associative memory. A NASA study of astronauts’ sleep patterns found that the main cognitive function improved by napping was “working memory”. This is the ability to multitask — focusing attention on one task while holding other tasks in memory.

It Can Improve Your Perceptual Learning

Previous research demonstrated that people perform better on a visual texture-distinguishing task after a night of sleep than they do immediately after learning it. A 2003 study in Nature Neuroscience found that people performed just as well on the test after a 60- to 90-minute nap as they did after a full night of slumber.” What’s amazing is that in a 90-minute nap, you can get the same [learning] benefits as an eight-hour sleep period,” lead author Sarah Mednick said in an interview with the American Psychological Association. “The nap is having an additive benefit on top of a good night of sleep.”

It Can Help You Maintain Your Alertness to Stimuli

A 2014 study in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that people who took a 30-minute midday nap paused this decline in attention, and those who snoozed for 60 minutes actually reversed some of that day’s deterioration.

It Can Help People Suffering from Depression

Different studies have shown other positive impacts of catnaps. For people with depression, napping seems to help refocus attention away from bad experiences.

It Can Help You Deal with Physical Pain

One study by Brice Faraut and colleagues published in PLOS ONE showed a reduction in pain sensitivity after a midday doze.

It Can Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

Studies have shown napping reduces the risk of heart disease. A study by Manolis Kallistratos concluded: “Although the mean BP decrease seems low, it has to be mentioned that reductions as small as 2 mmHg in systolic blood pressure can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by up to 10%.”His research team also found that in midday sleepers pulse wave velocity levels were 11% lower and left atrium diameter was 5% smaller. “These findings suggest that midday sleepers have less damage from high blood pressure in their arteries and heart,” said Kallistratos.

It Can Improve Motor Learning

Catherine E. Milner and colleagues published in Biological Psychology found that motor learning, which is where brain pathways change in response to learning a new skill, was significantly greater following a brief afternoon nap for regular nappers when compared to non-nappers.

What Time of Day is Best for a Nap?

Research by Mitsuo Hayashi and Makiko Watanabe published in Clinical Neurophysiology suggests, a brief 20 minute, early-to-mid-afternoon nap provides the greatest rejuvenation when compared to naps at any other time of the day.

Image: LIfehacker.com

How Long Should A Nap Be?

While the participants of a Chinese study napped for more than an hour, most research suggests that the best naps end before you enter deep sleep. As this occurs at around half an hour into sleep, anything less than 30 minutes is considered optimal.

This is the reason that air traffic controllers in the US are told to take 26 minute naps, and that the sleep pods occupying the offices of Google and Samsung wake you up after 20 minutes.

Michael J. Breus, a Clinical Psychologist and Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, and author of Beauty Sleep., suggests you incorporate these practices as part of your napping routine: Aim to take a nap 8 hours after you wake up, and no later than 3:30 p.m; target 30 minutes for a nap, allowing for 10 minutes to fall asleep and a 20 minute nap; take a reclining position; block out the light with an eye mask; and be comfortable and warm (a blanket is ideal).

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Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others