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Francis Wade | Why ‘nap time’ is good for workplace productivity

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 5:00 AM

It runs counter to commonsense thinking. Taking a sleep break in the middle of the workday turns out to be a smart practice, even though it runs afoul of tradition.

For the most part, we don't question our old assumptions.

Everyone 'knows' that Jamaica's workers are inherently lazy. This deeply ingrained corner of our psyche hasn't been questioned since work was organised in the first West Indian workplace the slave plantation. Avoiding work, we accept, was a matter of principle in those days. Doing so without being detected by 'backra' became an art-form.

Maybe his absence explains why I feel guilty whenever I take a midday nap.

I have learnt that my best work occurs in spurts, where I focus exclusively on a single task while actively avoiding distractions. This approach is endorsed by the authors of books like Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Deep Work, by Cal Newport.

The downside is that it's depleting. Once a focused task is completed, I experience a hard drop in mental and physical energy. The only way to restore it is to take a complete break, sometimes by changing my physical location. Most of the time, however, I just take a nap.

That's when the guilty feelings start.

After all, everyone knows that a diligent person doesn't doze off during working hours, right? Not so, according to the latest research. Scientists state that sleep is an invaluable tool for high performers and it's not just meant for the end of the day.

McKinsey's Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm recently published an article on the Harvard Business Review website. Their interview of 180 business leaders found that 43 per cent admitted to not getting enough sleep in the last four nights. It's indicative of how poorly this tool for rejuvenation is being used.

Naturally, if you're not getting enough sleep at night, the way to compensate is with a short nap. But are there reasons to take a nap even if you do get enough sleep?

There are, according to Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in England. "Tiny naps are far more refreshing than people tend to realise," he intones.

That may be because there is a biological clock located in the hypothalamus that's programmed to induce a "hump" of midafternoon sleepiness. Compared to getting more night-time sleep or using caffeine, taking a power nap was found to be the most effective remedy to this daily productivity dip.

Also, NASA research of its pilots has shown that a 26-minute nap (while accompanied by a co-pilot) enhanced performance by 34 per cent and alertness by 54 per cent.

Separate studies have shown that naps also have physical benefits: reduced stress and a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and weight gain. Even learning and recall are improved. A number of studies indicate that someone is more likely to remember details after taking a nap.

Dr Sara Mednick, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, wrote a book called Take a Nap! Change Your Life. As noted in a Bloomberg article, she recommends that individuals follow these steps.

1. Make time and space. Most sleep researchers recommend a short nap lasting from 5-25 minutes. It's best done right after lunch, and if your company doesn't provide sleep-pods like Google, find a quiet spot such as the inside of a parked vehicle.

2. Set the right conditions by turning off the light and covering your eyes. Mute your smartphone and other devices.

3. Avoid caffeine in pre-nap hours, as well as nicotine, diet pills, and antidepressants. Sugary snacks can also keep you buzzing.

While writing my books, I returned to a habit learnt while training for an ironman distance triathlon - early to bed, early to rise. Getting up at 3:30 a.m. gave me several hours to think and write without interruptions. The only way this tactic could work was to implement a regular midday nap.

Most Jamaican companies would scoff at this whole idea. Stuck in an old mentality, managers argue that our workers are 'special' and would only abuse the 'bonus' of taking a nap.

If your company harbours such fears, here's one way to get past them - set up a series of experiments with a small number of employees and objectively test the results; use their experiences to produce findings that can be customised to fit your situation.

Just because your company hasn't encouraged naps in the past doesn't mean you should avoid this productivity tool.

Not too long ago, the Internet, mobility and personal computing were foreign technologies. A nap costs much less money and effort to implement, but your company would have to get out of its own way, past the traditional ridicule, punishment and guilt that 'backra' would inflict.

It's updated commonsense.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com