Should you nap after work? The Sleep-Science Answers

Whether or not to nap after work can often be a huge issue. As someone who works an 8am to 5pm office job, I often arrive home exhausted – wanting nothing more than to crash out for a few hours. I’m sure you’ve felt the same. After getting through all the hard parts of the day, we’re left drained and unable to do the things we really want to in our free time.

The solution of a power nap can often seem like a great option. A quick 45 minutes on the couch could be the key to feeling refreshed and taking hold of the evening. But will it even work? Is it worth the risk of messing up our real sleep later on? I’ve often wondered these things, and have started educating myself on sleep science to understand how best to keep feeling awake and filled with energy.

Most of the scientific answers below I’ve found from Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep‘ – which I thoroughly recommend if you’re interested!

Short Answer:

Unless you really need it, try to tough out the rest of the evening and sleep on time. Naps are hugely beneficial to take, but taking them later may disturb your sleeping pattern. Let’s look into this more:

Are naps good for you?

The short answer here is, yes naps are good for you. Why? Because sleep is good for you!

And not just a little bit good – but amazingly good. There’s a great example to prove it:

Napping on Couch
Naps are a great way to rejuvenate yourself.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the parts of the world where ‘siesta’ culture is present. One of these places where it was biggest was Greece – right up until the end of the last century when modern ways of living took over. Shops and businesses would often close in the afternoon, then re-open for shift before closing around 8 or 9pm. While closed, the owners and other citizens enjoyed a peaceful nap, some good food, and relaxation time.

Now though, that lifestyle has shifted into the modern one like yours and mine. Where we try to cram as much sleep in during the night, and power through the whole day.

To investigate the changes, a huge study by Harvard teaming up with Athens University looked at the lives of 23,500 Greek people. Especially comparing those who napped, and those who didn’t.

I’ll quickly summarize if you don’t have time to read the article:

“The results showed that people who took short naps at least 3 times a week had a 37% less chance of coronary mortality (heart attack) than those not taking siestas”.

Now of course that’s a bit extreme, but it goes a long way to show the healing and destressing effects of an afternoon sleep. Plus, these effects were stronger in those who were working jobs than retired people. What this means is that napping is even more effective if you are working and are under a bit of stress.

So we know you should nap – but the next question is then commonly asked:

When is the best time to nap?

The actual timing of a nap is something I always thought would be pretty simple. If you had something you wanted to be refreshed for in the evening, then surely a nap just before that thing would be the best time – right?

Actually, science is saying otherwise. The best time to take a nap is as early as possible, after being awake for 6 hours or so.

This is because the fatigue we feel from being awake increases exponentially. I’ve had a go at showing this in the graph below. Basically, the longer we’re awake the quicker the rate at which fatigue worsens.

The way scientists have measured this is by recording ‘micro-sleeps’. These are defined as tiny moments, usually a few seconds long, where our brain ‘switches off’ and doesn’t respond. Almost as if we’re unconscious. I know it sounds crazy, but these are real – and are responsible for lots of accidents when people are driving cars or operating machinery. They’ve been found to be the cause of many car and even plane crashes.

If we take microsleeps as a picture of how tired your brain is, then the fatigue we feel gets exponentially worse the longer we’re awake. So to have the best effect at reducing this, naps should be taken as early as you feasible can.

In other words, if you want to be as refreshed as possible at 7pm, it would be better to take a 30 minute nap at 1pm rather than 6pm.

An earlier nap will go further in reversing the sleep deprivation while it’s still minimal. A later nap will help, but since you’re more fatigued it can’t undo the bigger rate increase.

Exponential sleep increase graph

I made that graph myself based on theory from ‘Why We Sleep’ and the references used – I hope it makes sense!

If you want proof then listen to the FAA (US Federal Aviation Administration). After doing lots of their own research, they recommend that pilots on long-haul flights take naps early during the flight to have the best performance while landing the plane. They specifically say earlier naps, and not later ones, for the best performance.

So what does all this mean for us?

Basically, if you can sneak in a nap at lunch it will do more for you than one after work. That being said, a quick 30 minutes of shut-eye after work is definitely miles better than nothing at all! It just won’t be quite as effective. 

How long should you nap for?

Try to decide if you want a quick ‘pick-me-up’ or if you need a full rest to really hit a reset switch. If it’s something quick, then 20-30 minutes is a great amount of time to let yourself destress, relax, and give your brain some time to breathe.

If you’re after something longer then aim for 90 minutes. An hour and a half is equivalent to around 1 sleep cycle for the average person. Waking up after 1 cycle should leave you feeling really refreshed and ready to go – but longer than that risks you going back into a deep sleep.

For what it’s worth – we can relate these times to examples covered previously. The FAA recommends a half hour nap for pilots needing to be on point for landing, while the Greek islanders who lived to 90 often had naps which were 2-3 hours long. (Though they slept less at night because of it).

Nap Tips & Tricks

Ideally, the best time to nap is right after you’ve eaten a good lunch and have some time to spare – it’s always good to eat first and then let yourself relax.

In terms of location, bed may not actually be the best place. Try kicking back on a couch or even just on a chair to help prevent yourself from getting into too deep a sleep (if you’re going for a quick power nap).

That being said, I’m lucky enough to work near home and often don’t hesitate to jump into bed and catch a quick 30 minutes at lunch. It does take me 10 minutes or so to fully wake up afterwards, but I always feel much better because of it.

If you’re napping after work, try not to make the room too dark. Some ambient lighting would be best, to let your brain know that it’s not quite night-time yet. Falling asleep in a fully dark, silent room may be too strong for what you’re trying to achieve – leaving you with an impossible task of trying to resurface yourself back out of neverland.

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