The Pandemic-Induced Rise of the Secret Workday Power Nap

With millions of Americans working from home, covert, on-the-clock siestas have never been more popular

September 14, 2021 8:52 am
A man sleeps with a pillow on his face and a computer on his lap.
Are midday snoozes kosher? Are they here to stay? Here's what you need to know.
Elkhamlichi Jaouad/EyeEm

A friend of mine lived in a ski house out West this past winter and spent nearly a month working on weekdays and skiing on weekends. It was a decision he executed on the down-low: not just due to COVID, but because neither his nor anyone else in the house’s manager ever really knew where they were. Everyone in the group would log on from the lodge each morning, crank through work, then reconvene for beers, a movie and a roaring fire each night.

That’s a rather in-your-face example of a developing pandemic perk: the no-questions-asked working vacation. They existed in the past, but were usually reserved for conference-circuit salesmen or remote creatives. Now anyone with a laptop and cabin fever is eligible. It’s no surprise that people are taking advantage: the United States is one of the few developed countries without a federal minimum number of days off. And so Americans, emboldened by closed offices, seem to have taken matters into their own hands, and decided that seeing new places while on the clock is better than not seeing them at all. Last year, Airbnb announced that 60% of people booking long-term rentals were working during their stays.

The trend seems likely to continue, too. As we finally head back to work — this fall? next winter? — most companies not named Goldman Sachs seem receptive to a hybrid model, which could allow for an at-least truncated version of my friend’s winter wonderland workweeks. Meanwhile, certain office-culture trendsetters (Google) are promising a new, permanent policy of four “work from anywhere” weeks a year.

But while streamlined “vacci-cations” may be the most headline-grabbing quarantine-era perk, there are others that have fundamentally changed the way we work. Others include days without commutes, constant access to home-cooked meals, midday walks with pets and workouts not crammed into a 30-minute window at the beginning or end of the day. Eighteen months into the pandemic, these are all open secrets. You’re more likely to classify them as routines than perks.

But there is one other WFH habit born of the pandemic that is surging in popularity but still decidedly covert. This “perk” was on display at the same ski house where my friend spent his working vacation. One housemate with a high-octane finance job had a habit of taking 30-minute power naps in the early afternoon, every single day. When he told me about this, I was a bit shocked. I asked how it affected her performance, and if her employers knew. He reported that she’s a well-regarded vice president, and that it was unclear whether her higher-ups were aware of the midday snoozing. Either way, she had found a system she now swears by.

A man sleeps in a futuristic nap pod.
You don’t have to work for a glitzy startup anymore to take a snooze at 2:00 in the afternoon.
STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

She isn’t alone. According to a report from the nonprofit Better Sleep Council, “more than one in five working adults take a nap during the workday.” And these workday nappers are almost invariably work-from-home nappers, we should emphasize, signaling that this is a very recent phenomenon. Remote employees are “two times more likely to take naps during the workday than their in-office counterparts.” In the past, one’s options were pretty limited. You either worked on a flashy Silicon Valley campus where nap pods were ubiquitous (remember when those had a moment?) or you blatantly nodded off during your lunch break.

Other takeaways: the midday nap is more common among younger workers. Millennials are 2.5 times more likely than their Boomer counterparts to take a siesta, while Gen Z is 3.4 times more likely. It’s important, also, to note that Better Sleep’s survey is relatively recent; it took place during the last week of July 2021. You have to wonder if employees would’ve felt liberated to take naps when they were still getting acquainted with Zoom in early 2020. Either way, the practice seems to work so well that even late converts are hooked. A whopping 87% of people who engage in them find them “refreshing,” which seems to function as a working definition for “effective.”

Among WFH nappers I’ve talked to, purpose is a prevailing theme. These naps aren’t mischievous attempts to shirk their duties — they’re pre-planned blocks of time intended to find some restoration in the middle of the day. They’re strategic, another evolutionary adaptation to an era in which sweatpants are acceptable workday attire, the couch is never more than a room away and stressors have a habit of piling up. It’s little wonder that workers are looking for ways to recharge their batteries. Consider how Tihana Drumev, a senior content marketing executive, started sleeping in the middle of the day:

“At the beginning of my work from home, I tried everything to wear the tiredness off. I’d exercise, reach for another cup of coffee, or have a chocolate bar. Nothing really worked. Eventually, I just crashed on the couch and set the alarm for 15 minutes. Once I tried it, I couldn’t believe it. I was able to return to work with morning-like focus.” According to Drumev, she feels no guilt over the her new life-hack. “My power nap makes me productive, which helps the company. I don’t think that anybody should be ashamed or hide that fact. What are 15 minutes compared to hiring, for example, a smoker who takes several cigarette breaks a day?”

This philosophy is shared by a variety of employees I spoke to, from travel agents to graphic designers. No matter the vocation, studies have confirmed over and over again that the human brain can only focus on a single task for up to three hours at a time. Some think tanks have dropped even more hyperbolic results: the NeuroLeadership Institute contends we can only produce six hours of legtimitate “work focus” a week. In theory, then, any activity that increases cognitive ability and alertness should be championed. Right?

Mikkel Andreassen, the support manager at a software company, has a similar story to Drumev. “I didn’t have the habit of napping before COVID, but as I became more comfortable at home, I noticed my productivity dropping. I had to do something to stop the trend. I started taking one nap that was 20-30 minutes long during my lunch break. I tried different times as well, but the results weren’t as good. One month after I started napping, my performance increased by 10% and I noticed feeling much more energized. My boss never really noticed, but even if he did, I think he would encourage it.”

A man walks past a COVID sign in Dublin.
Most of us can’t wait for a return to normalcy, but for WFH nappers, that could put a stop to their undercover superpower.
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Some employees, like Sharon Van Donkelaar, a chief marketing officer, claim they “immediately took advantage” of naptime during the WFH era. Others, like Louis Lee, a consultant, needed a bit of time to cozy up to the concept. Lee says, “I was hesitant to take naps since I felt like it was lazy. But my employer made it clear that our lunch breaks are time set aside for personal activities and we can use that time as we best see fit. For me, using my lunch breaks for self-care means getting proper rest, which gives me the second wind I need to have a productive second half of the workday. It took me over a year to get comfortable with the idea. I play a guided yoga nidra on YouTube in the background while I rest, and I feel recharged after.”

The trepidation many 9-to-5ers may feel before taking their first 20-minute plunge (and the unease you may feel reading this article) cuts to the core of a workplace issue called “presenteeism.” Here’s a working definition: It’s “the culture of employees continuing to work as a performative measure, despite having reduced productivity levels or negative consequences.” It’s been called a workplace epidemic, and it took a pandemic to really blow the lid off of how bad things have gotten.

Imagine, for example, trying to come into the office in 2021 with a terrible cold. People would be horrified. But 18 short months ago, it would have been commonplace, if not an outright expectation. This isn’t just a health issue, but a performance one. What sort of work-product are you generating when you’re a shell of yourself? A fever dilutes your wit, patience and creativity. And so, too, does a lack of sleep. A cross-sectional study of Japanese workers, published last year in Sleep Health, confirmed that “daytime dysfunction, sleep disturbance, and use of sleep medicine are associated with presenteeism.”

Naps may be due for a rebranding, then, especially in the eyes of managers. What if taking 40 winks when you’re not feeling yourself wasn’t only encouraged, but standardized, as an office policy? It’s happening, believe it or not. Some leadership teams have started giving employees one-hour, post-lunch breaks which are meant for anything (exercise, TV, childcare), but can accommodate naps. Others, like Ouriel Lemmel, the chief executive of a company that disputes parking tickets, is open with employees about his own napping. “I’m not shy about my napping habits and I don’t think my employees should be either. As long as we’re all getting our work done and doing it well, taking a nap during the day should be of little consequence. In the same way that I encourage my employees to take time off when they need it, I also encourage my employees to take naps.”

Another promising sound bite comes from Rick Hoskins, the founder of a filtration company: “I don’t care if an employee naps during the workday. In fact, I don’t care if an employee naps for the entire workday. All that matters to me is that they get their work done on time. From my point of view, your salary is what you’re being paid to do a job. If you’re paid to spend X amount of hours working, it’s no longer a salary — it’s a wage.” Even when administrators aren’t quite so cavalier or progressive on the topic, remote workers will settle for quiet tolerance. When one anonymous source’s boss found out he was napping each day, he accepted the practice as a “necessary coping mechanism” during a particularly difficult time.

All that said, you can easily be against midday naps for reasons that have nothing to do with workplace treatment or mental health. Some people just aren’t good at napping. There can be a lot of pressure around the practice, especially if you’re determined to fit the entire session into a tight window. Remember: people regularly take upwards of seven minutes to fall asleep, and that’s in their own beds, under the cover of darkness, at the very end of the day. What if you’ve convinced yourself you need a power nap in order to capably complete an afternoon assignment, but sleep won’t come? Could that set you back even further on the productivity scale?

Plus, a good nap, oddly enough, sort of requires a less-than-ideal sleeping setup — and that flies in the face of everything we know about good sleep. There’s a casualness to conking out in the living room that isn’t going to work for some sleepers. Studies have long suggested that the perfect power nap is about 20 to 30 minutes (Better Sleep’s survey, true to form, found the mean at 29 minutes,) and sleeping for less than a half hour, assuming you’re able to fall asleep, takes tremendous discipline. Sleep through your alarm and you’ll miss out on the energetic benefits, then struggle to fall asleep for the actual show later that night.

So are naps even worth the hassle? Some workers believe that if you need to nap in the middle of the day, it’s a sign you should be going to bed earlier. Others recommend getting up earlier and using your morning alertness to knock out your most stressful tasks.

And even the new legion of work-from-home nappers know that their habits could change abruptly. As Van Donkelaar says, “When it comes to losing the possibility of naps once WFH is over, yes, it’s a possibility that really stresses me out.” She’s remaining hopeful, though. “I think the future is leaning more towards a hybrid workplace, where the perks of home offices and in-building offices will meet. Then we’ll be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Given their importance, I think naps will remain in the schedule of everyone who finds them useful for their work life.”

Microsoft released a study this week with the headline “To Thrive in Hybrid Work, Build a Culture of Trust and Flexibility.” It described, impartially, “high employee satisfaction with the current, primarily non-office system.” What on earth is keeping these workers happy, at a time where energy and empathy are at all-time lows? Among other things: napping. It’s hard to imagine an entire team taking naps together each day at 2 p.m., but if the odd employee is ending the day with some added gusto thanks to a 15-minute kip, maybe we should let them be. The long, lingering power lunch has endured for decades. There’s no reason society can’t stomach a power nap.

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