The Need for Napping

ShumardThe concept of napping is caught in a slow but natural evolution of positive thinking, replacing the taboo it invoked only a few years ago. It is becoming more acceptable as the American mind-set changes due to increased public awareness of the benefits of alertness, safety, and productivity. This by no means implies that society is slowing down, but it is realizing the rewards of resting a few minutes a day. Some researchers warn that napping longer than a half hour or after 3 pm can impair nighttime sleep if we nod off long enough to enter our normal sleep stages.

We can no longer say that Americans are the only ones obsessed with working more and sleeping less. Nearly everyone has heard of the custom of taking a siesta once widely practiced in foreign countries. Spain gave the siesta its name and the trend to cease the custom is bemoaned as an assault on a national icon. Siesta comes from sexta, the Spanish word for sixth, because it is generally taken 6 hours into the workday. The long break has been traditional in many countries with searing midday heat, but Spaniards claim to have done the most to perfect the rite. As Spain’s corporate culture spurns the idea of daytime dozing as being unproductive, a vocal minority led by a few sleep researchers are taking the opposite approach.

The siesta has lost ground in such Mediterranean strongholds as Portugal, Italy, and Greece and workers have begun to follow a Western-style workday. The siesta suffered a blow in Mexico last year when 50,000 public servants had their midday breaks cut because the government decided to save millions of dollars in electricity costs. In the 1990s, Mexican government offices and private businesses customarily closed from 3 pm to 6 pm and then stayed open until 9 pm.

Corporate Spent Tents
People usually tend to feel sleepy between 2 pm and 4 pm due to a drop in body temperature. The idea of taking afternoon naps to compensate for this drowsiness is now interesting leaders of big business. In The Twenty Four Hour Society, Martin Moore-Ede, MD, PhD, describes an approach to napping developed in Japan. Moore-Ede is an international expert on human alertness and fatigue, Harvard Medical School associate professor of physiology, director of the Institute for Circadian Physiology, and the founder and CEO of Circadian Technologies, consultants to industry in providing solutions to enhance human alertness in the workplace. He says that the Japanese electronics company Matshusita shows the way of the future. “A specially designed rest and relaxation chair lulls you to a relaxed state as it automatically reclines and massages your back. Then, as you sink into the early stages of drowsiness, it times your entry into the twilight of consciousness before switching at a predetermined time to a wake-up mode in which the chair back is raised, bright lights are switched on, cool air is blown across your face, and you are ready to go back to work.”

It is becoming more commonplace for companies to allow napping in the workplace. Some of these include Union Pacific Railroad, Ben and Jerry’s, and Levi Strauss—all providing “spent tents” (nap lounges) for their employees. Yarde Metals Inc, Bristol, Conn, a metals distribution company with branches in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, is building a 2,000-sq-ft “nap room,” which is able to accommodate 20 employees at a time in each of its facilities. A spokesperson for the company says that Craig Yarde, president, is openly concerned about the health and welfare of his employees. According to the spokesperson, Yarde also believes in the corporate leveling philosophy whereby all employees are trained and treated as equals, and the naps are self-monitored. The company celebrates National Nap Day by allowing employees to take naps outdoors.

Changing Society’s Mind-Set
My husband’s family is from the Southwest and has always made a practice of napping after a Sunday afternoon meal. I, being a dyed-in-the-wool Northeasterner, never saw entire families slow down long enough to relax in this way. Often, my husband, his mother, and all six of his siblings and their spouses lie down after meals during family gatherings and fall asleep on all available sofas and comfortable chairs. Of course, their children did not see mid-afternoon transient sleepiness as a problem, and often disturbed the group naps by running in and out of the house while playing.

Napping has always done my husband a world of good. When we were first married, I began to think he was suffering from some sort of “sleep sickness” because he slept so much of the time he was not working. I soon learned that in order for him to function normally, he required at least 8 hours of sleep per night as well as daily doses of afternoon naps. When he did not get his nap, he was irritable and sluggish. He would sometimes spend his lunch breaks in his car taking naps.

It is hard to change old ideas and napping seems to be the opposite of our society’s work ethic. Nearly everyone has encountered times at work or home when they simply shut down and can not continue with even a seemingly simple task. It is like being in an overwhelming haze—too tired to even recognize what the problem is.

Not until I became involved in polysomnographic technology professionally did I understand why my husband embraced his naps as a battery charger. Now there are many Sunday afternoons when our immediate family embraces siesta time. I have become quite fond of afternoon naps, and find them very satisfying. After about 15 or 20 minutes of blissful sleep, I am ready to conquer anything.

We Are People, Not Machines
Very early in my sleep technologist career, I can remember a few times driving home after a night shift with the “doze of death.” My trip home was only 17 miles, but it was due east facing the bright sunrise. Fighting to keep my eyes open while squinting and keeping myself alert was a challenge. In my ignorance, I soon took up the practice of drinking coffee before I left the laboratory, but that inhibited my falling asleep once I reached home. There was no easy answer except to sleep in the hospital parking lot before I started my journey. I had to then start setting an alarm clock because I would wake up in the afternoon slumped over the steering wheel. I was burning the candle at both ends and was not able to sleep well in my daytime environment. One time I was talking face to face with a colleague at 3 am and started babbling as I approached twilight microsleep sitting straight up. She said, “What did you just say?” and, needless to say, the colleague reported me. I wish now that there had been adequate staffing and an open- minded attitude allowing for planned workplace napping. If only this incident had not been viewed as a sign of weakness at that time. Napping at the job is a very different issue from napping on the job, and planned employee napping strategies in sleep laboratories would be beneficial safety measures for both patients and employees. Many shift workers feel the physical pain of sleepiness from about 2 am to 4 am and accept it as just a way of life.

A few months ago, I was working 1 night a week in a local sleep laboratory. This was just enough to play havoc with my sleep-wake schedule. I knew I had a phone conference the morning after a particular shift and thought I could take in a few hours of sleep when I got home. I overslept and joined the conference almost an hour late. Luckily, the people on the line were all members of the National Sleep Foundation’s Community Sleep Awareness Partners Advisory Committee, and naturally excused my reason for being late.

During a luncheon for speakers at a sleep technologist symposium last year, I had the opportunity to discuss the idea of implementing a nationwide, regulated nap program for sleep technologists who work the night shift with some of the physicians and sleep technologists at the table.

One physician said he was particularly concerned about the safety and alertness of his night shift technologists as they drove home from the sleep laboratory in the mornings. Another physician said he thought the sleep community should practice what it preaches by acting as the main group advocating for such practices in our own backyards—the sleep laboratories. He said it would set a precedent if the sleep community adopted on formal napping programs in sleep laboratories, and the technologists were an excellent subject group.

Since that time, I have learned that a few laboratories with adequate relief staffing conditions have instituted this practice. The medical director of one sleep laboratory who employs seven technologists said his facility is interested in becoming an official beta site for the practice

The Napping Subculture
History is full of famous nappers. Winston Churchill always embraced his midday nap. Brahms napped at the piano in between composing his renowned lullaby. Napoleon and Stonewall Jackson nodded off between battles. Surrealist painter Salvador Dali nodded off in a chair with a heavy key or spoon in hand, and the instant it clattered to the floor, he went back to work.

Modern day celebrities carry on the tradition, but only a few actually admit to it. President George W. Bush was recently scorned by the press for admitting he misses his prepresidential time when he got at least 8 hours of sleep a night and a nap during the day. “George W. doesn’t seem to be getting his usual ample hours of sleep. Though not doing much of substance, he has to be awake much longer than he is used to, and his few unscripted remarks have been often testy,” noted the Chicago Sun-Times.

It is easy to see why the “proud-nappist minority” hates to admit they indulge in the practice, says William Anthony, PhD, author of The Art of Napping. He argues that we live in a society where napping is discriminated against even though we are “nearly all seriously sleep-deprived.” “Our culture has developed on the mistaken belief that productivity and napping are two different extremes,” he says. Anthony is a professor of psychology at Boston University, and he and his wife Camille authored a sequel to his book, The Art of Napping at Work.

The Anthonys say society is full of clappers (people who hide their napping from others—some in bathroom stalls at work) and “napaphobics”—people who try to make others feel ashamed of napping. “They cannot discuss with fellow nappers their napping strategies and personal napping highlights. They remain silent when people make fun of nappers. They pretend to be meditating when, in fact, they are napping,” Anthony states. “First of all, we need to be vigilant about nappist vocabulary, often used non-too-subtly by napaphobics. Proud nappers must inhibit people from using such phrases as ‘sneaking a nap,’ ‘going down for a nap,’ and ‘caught napping.’ Nappers have naps. They don’t take, steal, or sneak naps. Nappers don’t go down for a nap—they prepare for a nap. Nappers are never caught napping, because there is no crime to catch. Nappers are merely seen napping.”

Recharge and Refocus
Sleep is usually the last thing that enters people’s minds when they think about good health. Healthy People 2010 is a national health promotion and disease prevention initiative. Its goals are to increase the quality and years of healthy life and eliminate health disparities. Healthy People 2010 challenges individuals, communities, and professionals to take specific steps to ensure that good health, as well as long life, are enjoyed by all. However, the original Healthy People 2010 verbiage on the list of health problems troubling America was drafted without mentioning sleep. The National Sleep Foundation, along with other professional sleep organizations, acted quickly and came up with additional material on sleep problems to be included in the health initiative.

Some people still think that our bodily functions simply shut down when we sleep, and that nothing important is really going on there. Not only changing the mind-set that napping is a sign of weakness, but advocating for sleep in general with policy makers, should be a priority. If you think you are already too overwhelmed to help, take a nap and refocus.

Theresa Shumard is a member of Sleep Review’s Editorial Advisory Board; editor-in-chief of The A2Zzz, the newsmagazine of the Association of Polysomnographic Technologists; and founder of REMgazer Sleep Communications, Mohnton, Pa.