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The power of naps

When is it OK to catch some shut-eye on the job?

Workplace snoozing has been the topic of an awful lot of water-cooler jesting lately — at least among those awake enough to remember their conversations.

First, there were a rash of reported incidents of air-traffic controllers nodding off during late-night shifts, though no serious accidents occurred. Then, Vice President Joe Biden became a target of nationwide fun after he nodded off during his boss' noontime budget speech.

The notion of napping on your employer's dime seems to violate every aspect of the work ethic instilled in Americans from the nation's earliest days. But sleep experts say there are a few circumstances in which catching a few Zs in the old sweatshop is not merely acceptable, but desirable.

Dr. Susheel Patil, a deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorder Center, thinks naps should be scheduled for people who work the graveyard shift, particularly when — like air traffic controllers — they have jobs requiring maximum mental alertness.

And Jeanne Geiger-Brown, a director of the Work and Health Research Center at the University of Maryland's School of Nursing, says people slated for extremely long shifts should also get a regular chance to catnap. Medical residents, for instance, currently are on call for up to 30 hours at a stretch, and may or may not sleep for a portion of that time.

"Industries are now beginning to look at fatigue as part of their risk-management plan," she says. "Some people think it's silly to allow workers to sleep on the job. But it's even sillier to have employees so impaired they can't function."

History and popular culture are rife with notorious nappers:

Cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead has been dozing at his desk at the J.C. Dithers Co. for the past 78 years.

Winston Churchill, the legendary British stateman who shepherded his island nation through World War II, once said: "When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because it was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities."

And former President Bill Clinton was captured on YouTube after he famously drifted off in January 2008, during a Martin Luther King Day celebration in a Harlem church.

Geiger-Brown suspects that drowsy politicians fall into the category of people who slumber involuntarily in the middle of the day because they've been working into the wee hours.

"Sleep is a biologically active process," she says. "Your body has to have it. If you don't give your body sleep, it's going to find a way to take it."

Extreme sleep deprivation, she says, results in a phenomenon known as "micro-sleeps" in which the person nods off for periods ranging from 500 microseconds to a few seconds.

During these micro-sleeps, people appear to be awake. But their brains have stopped processing information — occasionally with disastrous results.

"In the old days, if a worker fell asleep on the highway on his way home and killed another motorist, he was the only person liable," Geiger-Brown says. "But there have been a few recent examples of people have won judgments against employers who should have known their workers were too tired to drive. And some of those judgments have been for more than a million dollars."

So when Dagwood grabs 40 winks, he might actually be doing the J.C. Dithers Co. a favor. Nor is he the only employee ever to nap while his supervisor's back is turned.

According to a 2008 study by the Virginia-based National Sleep Foundation called "Sleep Performance in the Workplace," 29 percent of workers acknowledged either becoming very tired or falling asleep while on the clock.

Though just one in 10 succumbs to the temptation to take a nap, 24 percent of employees said they would put their heads down if their bosses allowed it.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of companies frown on stealth sleepers.

A 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group for the folks who put together employee benefit packages, finds that just 5 percent of businesses offer on-site nap rooms where workers can curl up during breaks.

Frederick Smock, current president of the Baltimore-based Chesapeake Human Resources Association, can think of no Maryland firms that provide this particular perk.

"Most companies are still clinging to a very traditional sense of the American workforce," he says. "Things like napping and even telecommuting are very slow to take hold. Napping flies in the face of the old work ethic, and corporate America is not embracing it. I personally think it would be beneficial to use naps to boost late-afternoon productivity. Caffeine can only carry you so far."

Even when napping is permitted, employees might resist because they fear they will be perceived as lacking commitment or ambition.

For instance, starting July 1, the nation's hospitals will adopt more relaxed work rules for student doctors. Working hours for first-year interns will be limited to 16 hours at a stretch, down from the current limit of 30. Second- and third-year residents will have their maximum shifts reduced from 30 to 28 hours.

According to Patil, naps have been officially recommended "when necessary and feasible" by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the organization that sets standards in the U.S. for internships and residencies.

But persuading all those young Type A overachievers to take even a badly needed siesta could be a battle.

"We are in a society that values macho-ness," Patil says. "That's the hard part, and that's what's got to change."

Geiger-Brown says research reveals that a strategy of planned naps can result in increased acuity.

One study found that overnight workers who napped for 20 minutes at 3 a.m. were still vigilant at 7 a.m.

Another study of industrial workers on the graveyard shift who napped for an hour between 11:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. documented a long-term boost to job performance.

"The effects of naps got better and better over time, because the workers were chipping away at their sleep deficit," she says.

A third experiment gave 40-minute naps to pilots who flew over the ocean for several hours at a stretch late at night.

"The naps really helped them be more alert during the crucial last 90 minutes of the flight," she says.

It's enough to give lying down on the job a good name.

Sleep smarts

Do you know how to "nap smart"? Jeanne Geiger-Brown provides the following tips to help Americans improve their snooze IQs.

•Plan the duration of your nap.

The ideal nap should last either 20 minutes or 90, because workers will awaken during a phase of light sleep and feel refreshed and alert.

Conversely, naps lasting 30 to 60 minutes will interrupt the cycle of deep sleep and can result in a condition called "sleep drunkenness" in which dreamers awake feeling confused and sluggish.

"But when you're extremely sleep-deprived, you're likely to fall immediately into that deep-sleep phase," Geiger-Brown says, "When you wake up, you'll have that period of inertia, no matter what."

•Working the overnight shift? Plan naps for before 3 a.m. to take advantage of your natural circadian rhythms. Studies have shown that workers who nap between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. suffer more sleep inertia than do those who doze between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.

•If you're so jacked up on caffeine that you can't drift off, lie down and close your eyes anyway.

"People who fall asleep during a nap will get the most benefit, but even resting will help a little bit," Geiger-Brown says.

•Which people should never nod off?

"People who suffer from some untreated medical conditions such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy," she says, "will feel groggier if they take a nap than if they don't."