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Businesses waking up to the benefits of napping

From Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill to Bill Clinton and George Costanza, the nap has had many famous champions. And with good reason.
/ Source: Business Week

From Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill to Bill Clinton and George Costanza, the nap has had many famous champions. And with good reason. Ever since sleep scientist David Dinges helped found the modern science of napping in the early '80s at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, short periods of sleep have been shown to improve alertness, memory, motor skills, decision-making, and mood. All while cutting down on stress, carelessness, and even heart disease.

With Americans averaging fewer than seven hours of sleep per night — and around 20 percent suffering from sleepiness during the day, according to a recent Stanford University study — many companies have turned to the humble nap in an attempt to stave off billions in lost productivity each year. Following the rise of workplace perks like lactation rooms, gyms, and child-care facilities, Nike workers now have access to nap-friendly "quiet rooms" that can also be used for meditation. Google, a forerunner in employee perks, has a number of futuristic napping pods scattered throughout its Mountain View campus.

Jawa, a small mobile technology company in Scottsdale, Ariz., has two resting rooms — one with a similar pod, the other with an old-fashioned couch—that are popular among programmers working long hours. Many airlines, including Continental and British Airways, allow pilots to sleep during long international flights while colleagues take over the controls. (The practice is prohibited for domestic flights by the Federal Aviation Administration.) Other companies, such as Ben & Jerry's, have no official policy but provide unofficial space for the practice and don't bat an eye when someone spends an extra half hour snoozing in the massage room. "If you have employees working 16-hour days, you want to give them an opportunity to take a power nap," says Melissa Gierginger, a spokeswoman for Jawa.

Other companies have opted to outsource their daytime sleeping solutions. Yelo, a napping spa in midtown Manhattan, has provided its services to Hearst, Newsweek, and Time Warner. It offers naps in a "cocoon-like" treatment room in which clients can adjust aromatherapy, sound, and lighting. A 20-minute nap goes for $15. (A half-hour "Nap Plus" — including a 10-minute foot rub — costs $40.)

"Over the last few years, there's been a lot of focus on exercise and nutrition, but adequate sleep is arguably the most important element of productivity," says Christopher Lindholst, co-founder of MetroNaps, which markets a napping chair called the EnergyPod to such companies as Google, Procter & Gamble, and Cisco Systems. The EnergyPod, which looks like Pacman with a really long tongue, boasts ergonomic support and a built-in music system with a headphone jack to eliminate background noise. "The EnergyPod is designed to provide some privacy, but it's typically installed in a common area so you create an environment of awareness and acceptance," says Lindholst. MetroNaps rents its EnergyPod for $795 per month.

"Tiny naps are much more refreshing than people tend to realize," said Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in England. "A short nap in the afternoon will get rid of sleepiness without interfering with nighttime sleep." That said, it's best not to depend on napping as a permanent replacement for lost sleep. "On occasion it will get you over the hump, but whether it gets you back to peak is an open question," says Dr. Roger Rosa, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "If you've lost an hour of your previous night's sleep, a nap may be just the ticket. If you've been up all night, it may give you a hangover effect" known as "sleep inertia."

According to Dr. Sara Mednick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, not all naps are created equal. Mednick believes that naps weighted toward different stages of the sleep cycle confer different benefits. "If you do physical labor, you need more Stage 2 sleep," says Mednick. "If you are doing memorization or verbal work, you need more slow-wave sleep. And if you do creative or visual work, you need more REM sleep."

Dr. Mednick has devised an "Optimized Napping Formula" so ambitious nappers can maximize the desired phase of sleep. Napping newbies can purchase a device called Zeo ($199), which promises to track your sleep cycles for you via your brainwaves with a special headband. Those looking for a simpler contraption might prefer the Dream Helmet ($29.95), which serves as mask, pillow, and earplugs all at once.

Some researchers are skeptical about efforts to cultivate a given phase of sleep. "On a practical level, all a person can choose is how long they sleep," says Dr. Rosa. "You can't change the pace of the sleep cycle without sleep deprivation, which would be counterproductive." A strict dozing regimen, such as the kind employed by sailboat racers, military pilots, and astronauts, can replace nocturnal sleep altogether for a limited time. Leonardo da Vinci experimented with erratic sleep schedules, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that Italian researcher Claudio Stampi invented "polyphasic ultrashort sleep," which breaks up the day into several equal sections, each of which ends with a brief nap. As long as these mini "days" are kept intact, one can then whittle the naps down to as little as two hours of sleep per 24 hours—at least according to research published in Stampi's 1992 book, "Why We Nap."

Such daring sleep habits are not for everybody. "Going ultrashort is like running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest," writes Dr. Mednick in her book, "Take a Nap! Change Your Life." "You need careful training and a generous period of recovery." However, the simple "productivity nap" does hold an undeniable appeal for time-crunched workers. Most sleep experts welcome the consequent uptick in nap-friendliness at work, though some are leery of its unintended consequences. "It can get out of hand: If you start encouraging the workforce to sleep in the afternoon, you're encouraging them to have late nights," says Horne. "Our society is getting more used to napping in the workplace, but it is still seen as something that could get you fired."

The do's and don's of dozing
Napping at work has become acceptable at some companies. Yet pulling off a "productivity nap" at the office isn't easy. Here are suggestions from sleep scientist Dr. Sara Mednick, author of "Take a Nap! Change Your Life."

1. Make time and space

Twenty to 30 minutes is all you need to reap the rewards of midday slumber. The best time is the early afternoon when your body is tired—so consider reserving the second half of your lunch break for shut-eye. If your employer doesn't have a nap room, a yoga mat beats a bathroom stall, though the most comfortable option may be a parked car.

2. Set the proper conditions

In the dark our brains produce more of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, so close the blinds, turn off the lights, and consider using a sleeping mask. Keep the temperature on the warmer side. If you must nap sitting up, use a travel pillow to avoid the dreaded "nap nod." And don't forget to turn off your cell phone.

3. Careful with the chemicals

Avoid caffeine for a few hours before a nap. The same goes for nicotine, diet pills, and antidepressants. Although alcohol makes it easier to nod off during the day, it interferes with sleep and should also be avoided. Refined sugars and carbs may keep you up, but meat, dairy, and some nuts have tryptophan, which our bodies break down into melatonin.