Sleeping Your Way to the Top

No, I’m not talking about casting couches.

I’m talking about naps and the benefits of allowing and even encouraging short spells of sleeping on the job. Especially amid today’s pressure-cooker work climates, 20-minute siestas can improve employee sanity and performance.

Not everyone can nap. And naps longer than 30 minutes can backfire in the form of grogginess or nighttime sleeping problems. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, short daytime naps offer benefits including relaxation, reduced fatigue and “improved performance, including quicker reaction time, better memory, less confusion, and fewer accidents and mistakes.”

If you need more evidence about the upsides of putting your head down for a rest, consider the role of naps at Bell Labs. I’ve been reading Jon Gertner’s fascinating history of Bell Labs, The Idea Factory. Bell Labs produced many of the most important innovations of the 20th century, including the transistor and satellite communications. As it turns out, both of those breakthroughs owe something to people with a habit of grabbing a workday nap.

One of the keys to transistors—the tiny switches that are the building blocks of our computer devices—is creating extremely pure samples of substances such as silicon. Bell Labs metallurgist Bill Pfann had been wrestling with questions of how to purify germanium more effectively. One day, he tilted his chair back for a customary after-lunch nap. And he awoke from his relaxed state with a start and an answer: “I brought the chair down with a clack I still remember,” he later recalled. The solution was to pass a coil of superhot metal along a rod of germanium to burn out impurities. This “zone refining” ultimately led Bell Labs to create materials in the 1950s so pure that, according to Gertner, they were like a 38-car freight train loaded to the brim with sugar except for just a pinch of salt.

And consider the work habits of Bell researcher John Pierce, considered the father of communications satellites. “Every day at noon,” Gertner recounts, “he stretched out on a table in his office and took a nap.”

Such a work climate might make many employees today jealous. For the past few years, workloads have been cranked up with little sign of let-up. “Employees everywhere are working more hours, taking less time off and experiencing higher levels of stress,” consulting firm Towers Watson said in its 2012 study of roughly 32,000 workers around the world.

I would argue that employers should consider easing up on those work demands, especially as the economy picks up. At a minimum, organizations should authorize breaks for a nap or meditation.

I will admit to bias on the subject. I am a work napper. And I find that a 20- to 25-minute nap almost invariably refreshes me. I happen to work at a satellite office with no immediate supervisors. That helps me feel little shame about ducking under my desk for a nap. In more traditional offices, nap rooms may be needed, along with declarations that cat naps are OK, or encouraged even.

Contrary to popular belief, you generally don’t lose when you snooze at work. You don’t lose personal productivity or team discipline or organizational effectiveness. In catching a few winks on the job, you—and your company—are more likely to win.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.