Can technology replace sleep?

Powernap: energy boost or time wasting?

Instead of only investing in expensive coffee machines, companies should better invest in retreats, believes Dr. Utz Niklas Walter. That would be the more successful approach to tackling the midday low for employees. Walter is the scientific director of the Institute for Workplace Health Advice (IFBG) in Konstanz. It advises companies on corporate health management and carries out psychological risk analyzes in which employees are also asked about their sleep behavior.

A third of the more than 10,000 participants in the previous analyzes had stated in the questionnaires that they would like to have a regular sleep break - "a power nap" - in everyday life. Another third would at least sometimes want such a break. These results do not surprise the health advisor. For him, however, it is difficult to understand why something is slowly happening in companies. "The positive effect of the power nap has been clearly proven. If you sleep a few minutes in the afternoon, you are up to three hours more productive afterwards and can thus better overcome the midday low."

Ascent for office sleep

"It would be wonderful for employees if not only themselves, but also office sleep made a career," says sleep specialist Dr. Hans Günter Weeß. As head of the interdisciplinary sleep center at the Palatinate Clinic in Klingenmünster and member of the board of the German Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine (DGSM), he has been dealing with sleep and its disorders for 20 years.

During the night, our immune system is strengthened, learning and memory processes are promoted. The longer we are awake, the more adenosine, a substance that makes you tired, gets from the nerve cells into the extracellular space of the brain. "When you sleep, adenosine goes back into the cells," says Weeß. "We charge our empty batteries." How such biochemical processes take place during short naps during the day has not yet been adequately investigated. "But we know they are happening."

Studies have shown: "After a power nap, our mood is more balanced. This way, we can concentrate better and endure annoying colleagues or superiors better." The short day's sleep therefore helps employees and bosses alike. Efficiency and productivity would increase; the risk of making mistakes is decreasing. For example, studies by the US space agency NASA have shown that the response time of pilots after a short sleep was 16 percent shorter.

Not only useful for performance

In addition to short-term effects immediately after snoozing, studies also show long-term effects of regular power naps: "The risk of cardiovascular disease decreases, life expectancy increases," says Weeß. The risk of heart attack falls by 37 percent if they take regular naps, according to a US study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Athens Medical School with over 23,000 participants.

In any case, some researchers consider biphasic sleep, i.e. sleep in two phases, to be actually natural. Experiments in bunkers have shown that people who have not been exposed to the light fell asleep briefly after a few days at noon - without knowing what time it was. Even pensioners who are no longer subject to the constraints of the world of work often return to this rhythm, according to Walter.

Go to the basement to sleep

So why not sleep in the office? In Japan it is quite normal to put your head on the table and doze off after eating. And at Google in California, employees can use entire relaxation landscapes. In Germany, there are still comparatively few companies that offer their employees loungers or relaxation rooms. And when they do, they are often designed in such a way that one would rather not use them: "Often some room in the basement is chosen. Then a couple of loungers are put in and that's it," says health advisor Walter. Often it is a long way from the desk to the resting place, the room itself is uncomfortable or even unhygienic. "The result: Nobody goes. I therefore recommend that you do it right and start a serious project," said Walter's plea.

Positive wording could also help to ensure that bedrooms are accepted: "For many people, an energy filling station sounds better than a bedroom." Reading or talking should not be done in such a space. "You should be able to relax and switch off," says Weeß. How it works - sitting or lying, in light or dark, with or without earplugs - varies from person to person.

The perfect length of a power nap

Experts agree that daytime sleep must not last too long if it is to be really restful. A maximum of 20 minutes is ideal. According to researchers at the Australian Flinders University, ten minutes are enough to achieve the optimal effect of a power nap. Those who sleep too long, on the other hand, run the risk of slipping into what is known as REM sleep. "REM sleep affects emotions, it makes two thirds of people listless and sluggish," says Weeß. We supposedly felt more tired. So a long nap would achieve the opposite of what we want a power nap to achieve. According to Walter, this can also increase the risk of mistakes or even accidents at work.

In addition to the duration, the time for a successful power nap is also important: It should take place at noon after dinner or in the early afternoon, well before 6 p.m. Short naps reduce sleep pressure and can make falling asleep difficult in the evening. "For people with insomnia, a power nap after 3 p.m. is forbidden, for some even completely," says Weeß.

You can't get enough sleep at night

But night sleep remains more important for health than a perfect power nap. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement here: half of the respondents in the 2017 sleep study by the Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) stated that they slept a maximum of six hours per night. However, the normal duration for most people is between seven and nine hours. According to a survey by the health insurance company DAK, sleep disorders have increased by 66 percent in employed people between 35 and 65 years of age since 2010.

Chronic lack of sleep increases the risk of depression and other illnesses many times over. In 2016 alone, lost days due to sleep disorders in Germany resulted in production losses of 60 billion euros, estimates the American think tank Rand Corporation.

Experts demand greater sensitivity from employers

Even so, only just under one in ten companies has so far addressed sleep in workplace health promotion, TK found out in its #whatsnext BGM trend study among 800 personnel, managers and those responsible for OHM. Employers should be made more aware of the issue, concluded the fund.

But not just them: "Nowadays we want to be the perfect mom, the perfect dad or the perfect employee. And where do we compromise when time is running out? Of course when we sleep," says expert Walter. Everyone should think about their sleep behavior. Because a daily power nap in the office would be nice. But he cannot replace the regenerative processes with adequate night sleep.