More workers fall asleep on the job

May 30, 2013, 7:01 a.m. EDT

More workers fall asleep on the job

Napping during office hours is on the rise, giving employers nightmares

By Quentin Fottrell

Sleep-deprived employees are increasingly likely to nod off at work. But when it comes to addressing this potential productivity and safety issue, experts say, most employers have been caught napping.

On Tuesday, The New York Post published photos of Mark Rosenthal, leader of New York’s largest blue-collar municipal workers’ union — Local 983 of District Council 37 — sleeping in his office. (DC37 did not respond to requests for comment.) In another recent case, a New Jersey transit bus driver was suspended for allegedly sleeping on the job; while he was sleeping, a local homeless man was filmed by NBC 4 News directing buses at a parking spot in New York. (A New Jersey Transit spokeswoman says the homeless man was never an employee and says the case is under investigation.)

Researchers and human-resources experts describe incidents like these as part of a broader workplace dilemma. Nearly a quarter of all workers are affected by chronic sleeplessness, according to a 2011 study by Harvard Medical School. And insomnia costs an average of $2,280 per worker in reduced productivity every year — a total cost of $63.2 billion to the economy, the study says. That equates to 11 working days lost annually for each worker. In all, at least 10% of Americans say they are likely to fall asleep at an inappropriate time and place — at their desk, during a meeting or commuting to or from work, according to a 2012 survey by the National Sleep Foundation. In high-risk professions, dozing off at work can even put lives at risk: One in five pilots has made a serious error related to drowsiness, and one in six train operators and truck drivers has had a “near miss” due to sleepiness, according to the survey.

The causes are many, but they include the stresses of work itself, researchers say: With unemployment hovering at 7.5%, people are working longer hours and staying connected to their smartphones 24/7, says Thomas Balkin, chief of the behavioral biology branch at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. James Maas, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, agrees. “We have fewer workers taking over more responsibilities than they ever had before,” he says. “We’re pushing workers, and they’re exhausted.”

Companies in general are aware of the fatigue problem. As recently as 2010, more than 80% of human resource managers said worker fatigue was on the rise, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Yet only 5% of companies facilitate on-site napping for staff. “Employers don’t want to run a crèche,” he says, “and they perceive napping as an activity for kids,” says Michael Crom, executive vice president of Dale Carnegie Training. That’s not the only taboo against shut-eye: “In our macho society, napping is still frowned upon,” Crom adds.

A few companies have embraced naps. Googleplex, Google’s plush California headquarters, has futuristic nap pods where employees can indulge in midday rest and relaxation. “The bigger, more progressive Silicon Valley-type companies…seem to do everything they can do to keep you on campus,” Crom says. (A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.) And other companies with nap rooms? “They don’t want anybody to know,” says Ed Kaszycki, director of operations of Metronaps in New York, which supplies ergonomic “EnergyPods” to corporations. “Napping is looked at as laziness.”

Still, most human-resources experts say that companies are unlikely to punish workers who occasionally give in to fatigue. For those who don’t work at a nap-friendly company like Google, Balkin recommends a cup of coffee followed immediately by a surreptitious lie-down in a park or empty conference room for 15 to 20 minutes. “That way, you can get the benefits of the caffeine and the power nap,” he says. However, he cautions that caffeine is no substitute for lost sleep. Maas, who claims to have coined the term “power nap” four decades ago, also has an unorthodox and perhaps controversial strategy for those who are caught with their head down at their desk: “If your boss comes by and taps you on the shoulder, pause for a minute before you raise your head and say, ‘Amen.’”




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