September 16, 2023
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Night and shift workers tend to get less sleep and poorer quality sleep than people who work more typical hours. As a result, throughout several consecutive shifts, night and shift workers may accumulate a sleep “debt”. Well-timed naps can help compensate for this debt and relieve the buildup of the homeostatic sleep drive. Research has found several benefits of napping among shift workers. These include increased attention and mood, and decreased drowsiness and fatigue, all of which seem to enhance performance at work. Napping has also been found to reduce the number of errors and the risk of accidents at work or on the road, so consider using napping to your advantage.
Nap before your shift
The “prophylactic nap” happens before your shift. Depending on the start time of your work, this may mean in the late afternoon or evening. These naps are often used in anticipation of sleep deprivation or as an attempt to increase alertness during a late evening or night shift. There are no firmly established guidelines for the optimal duration of prophylactic naps. They tend to be quite long (60 minutes to a few hours) but much shorter naps are also beneficial. Regardless of how long you nap, allow enough time after waking up before you perform critical tasks. It is not uncommon to feel drowsy or disoriented after napping, a phenomenon referred to as “sleep inertia”. Sleep inertia occurs as we transition from sleep to wakefulness and is associated with temporary reductions in cognitive and motor functioning. Therefore, it is very important to avoid tasks that may be potentially risky or dangerous too close to waking from a nap, such as driving a vehicle or operating machinery. Sleep inertia typically lasts up to 30 minutes but can be shorter or longer depending on the individual. It may be more noticeable after longer naps.
Nap during your night shift
The “recovery nap” takes place during the night shift and is generally considered to be more restful than the prophylactic nap because it aligns better with the natural sleep-wake cycle. The challenge, however, is that many workplaces do not offer the opportunity for their employees to nap. This may be due to logistical constraints (e.g., the workplace is not compatible with sleep), time issues (e.g., limited or short breaks), or a lack of employer understanding or appreciation of the value of napping. If your workplace allows the opportunity for nighttime napping, you may be wondering when you should take a nap and for how long. Various constraints may limit your options, so you may want to take what you can get. Nevertheless, research suggests that it is best to take nighttime recovery naps before 4 AM and that short naps of 10-20 minutes can effectively reduce drowsiness and fatigue. If you prefer to take a recovery nap of 30 minutes or more, keep in mind that longer naps may be more likely to result in sleep inertia. Recall that sleep inertia, described above, is associated with temporary disorientation and decreased alertness and this may increase your risk of accidents. Ensure you allow enough time during your nighttime breaks to fully recover from sleep inertia and feel alert before resuming work tasks that may be potentially risky or dangerous.