Small businesses increasingly encourage daytime rest to boost productivity and fight fatigue. Sleep experts are applauding.
Years ago, Craig Yarde, founder of Yarde Metals in Bristol, CT, noticed his employees—who work in three manufacturing shifts, 24-hours a day—napping on the job. So when he built a new office space in 1995, he threw in a nap room, with couches.
"People thought we were just completely nuts," recalls Yarde. "Even some of my employees said 'What are you doing?'" Fifteen years later, Yarde Metals has grown to nearly 700 employees, with $500 million in annual revenue and locations up and down the east coast—each with its own dedicated napping room.
"Without a question, [naps] improve productivity," Yarde says. "It's funny how these things go. It went from being totally ridiculous to being cutting edge now."
Office naptime is zonking workplaces across the country. OnSwipe, a software shop in Manhattan facilitates napping at an office "den," as does Pontiflex, a mobile app ad start-up in Brooklyn; Jawa, a mobile app maker in Scottsdale, AZ; and 42 Inc., an information technology consultant in Berkeley, CA. Big-name players like Google and Ben & Jerry's endorse napping. NASA has teamed up with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and 91 volunteers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to teach astronauts how to nap better during long missions. For some, it's a company perk akin to gym membership, or free lunch.
Of course, midday siestas date back centuries as a means of escaping the afternoon heat in hot climes, as in Spain. But several recent studies reveal medical explanations for why naps increase productivity, too. In 2010, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley confirmed that napping can improve the brain's ability to retain information, noting that a middle-of-the-day reprieve "not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before." Two years earlier, at the University of Haifa in Israel, researchers found that naps help "speed up the process of long term memory consolidation," while the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Atlanta concluded in 2007 that a short catnap during the day "may be a useful strategy to improve not only mood but also job satisfaction".
James Maas, a sleep expert and Cornell social psychologist who coined the term "power nap" 36 years ago, recommends employees nap for 15-minutes when they feel sluggish to restore a sense of vitality to the workday.
"If we operated machinery like we operate the human body, we'd be accused of reckless endangerment. Just like machinery gets oiled, the human body needs to be nurtured and fed," Maas says.
Maas says there's a neurological reason power naps work. Though an EEG pattern—which measures the flow of electricity in the head—shows wakefulness while a person is excessively tired, the neurons involved in memory can be turned off, he says. So although a person is technically "awake" in this state of sleepiness, his or her memory neurons can go offline. Simply put, even though you're awake, your brain isn't. (A longer 30-minute or 60-minute nap, on the other hand, puts a person in Delta—or deep—sleep, he explains, which leaves the person groggy upon waking up.)
Maas, who also consults on workplace sleeping and productivity at Harvard, IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Blackrock, points out longterm benefits of napping, too. If regular, naps can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, including heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Studies have also shown that chronic drowsiness during the workday can cause slower reaction times, an inability to concentrate, and difficulty remembering information over longer periods of time.
At OnSwipe, a 13-person Manhattan software start-up with a dedicated room for rest, CEO Jason Baptiste says napping comes in handy during all-night coding sessions or when releasing new products in the middle of the night.
"Instead of pushing yourself and getting sick and doing a bad job anyway, I tell [my employees], 'Go take 30 minutes," he says. "When we got this office, the one goal we set out was to think of it not like an office, but like a house, where it’s comfortable and livable and you can get the job done."
Zephrin Lasker, CEO of a Pontiflex, a 60-person mobile app ad shop in Brooklyn, converted a room of computer servers into a napping retreat equipped with a small couch, plants, art, carpeting, and "soothing blue" paint on the walls.
"I'm a huge believer in napping," Lasker says. "It helps people recharge, and personally, it helps me think more creatively."
Lasker notes that though just 30 to 40 percent of his staff use the room, he frequently sends e-mails to his employees, encouraging them to do so. And, every few weeks, Lasker naps there himself. "I always lead by example," he says.
MetroNaps, a 20-person firm in California whose employees nap, recognizes demand for nap-inducing work products. The company manufactures the EnergyPod, a $12,985 sleeping chair with built-in "relaxation music" and subtle vibrations to lull its napper to sleep.
One of its creators, Christopher Lindholst, says business is flourishing since founding the company in 2003. "When we started this concept back in 2003, a lot of people thought we were pretty crazy to introduce the idea of napping in the workplace," he says. "Since then, companies have embraced the idea. They've realized that sleep is an important pillar of health, and if they're interested in maintaining employee well-being and increasing productivity, they need to do something to allow people to get rest."
MetroNaps customers include corporations, universities, and tech firms--like Google--but Lindholst is reluctant to identify more company names since they tend to avoid the public image of an idle or outright lazy office atmosphere.
That's a sleep association the converts wish to dispel. Pontiflex's CEO Zephrin Lasker says naps help the bottom line through the office culture they help create.
"I find that people are happiest and work best when they're relaxed," he says. "Just because you're relaxed, doesn't mean you're not working hard."