Have We Forgotten How to Sleep Right? Why Napping Could Save Your Health

Some years ago, I worked in an office where the second floor bathroom had a shower room attached, with just enough floor space to accommodate a body. If the door was locked in the middle of the day, you knew someone had taken the filthy towels off the back of the door and laid them on the ground for a nap. It was warm in there, like an airing cupboard, perfect for soothing a hangover, and after an hour on the floor you might emerge fighting fit, the sheen and consistency of a freshly steamed pork bun.

It was a liberal sort of office (alright, it was the Guardian), but still, such things are, we know, widely frowned upon as forms of degeneracy, laziness or the term favoured by more brutal management systems, "time-theft".

Last week, a new word for the activity entered the lexicon, care of a front page story in the New York Times about police officers on duty doing things that they shouldn't.

The list, seemingly compiled by an auto-generator of police cliches, included frequenting donut stores that gave them a discount and going to Irish bars. Worse than both, said police bosses – in fact, floating at the top of the Orwellian sounding "integrity monitoring list" – was something called "cooping": parking the patrol car in a secluded area and stealing a crafty nap.

It's not ideal, obviously, in that line of work, and hard to spin an upside to chasing a robber down the street while in the grip of sleep inertia, the period of disorientation experienced after you wake. But unlike eating sugary snacks, napping is, more generally, the subject of a vast and noble literature and can be justified by advocates as uniquely brain boosting.

Where you draw the line on napping probably has to do with the era you were raised in, book-ended at one extreme by Margaret Thatcher's '80s ethos and by Winston Churchill at the other. (There's probably a class thing at work here, too; the hard graft and insecurity of the grocer's daughter versus the more leisurely approach of the grandson of a duke).

Thatcher, famously, operated on as little as four hours sleep a night with, as far as we know, no mid-afternoon catch-up, while Churchill, just as famously, enjoyed a civilized 8am breakfast, lay down for a few hours in the late afternoon and held the nation together again until midnight.

As he said in the sort or expansive statement available to the well-rested:

Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.

Napoleon apparently slept before battle. Thomas Edison has some rather stern views about over-sleeping, but kept a cot in his office. JFK napped; George W Bush did, too but let's not get into that. LBJ's habit was to divide the day into two "shifts", napping in the middle and effectively squeezing two work days out of one: from 8am-2pm, and then post-nap, from 4pm–2am. Napping in this way can be said to wipe the day clean.

Many of these people, of course, were frequently required to stay up all night, so that, as new mothers know better than the keenest world leader, catching up the next day was less a self-indulgence than a mechanical necessity. The desire to lean in must, occasionally, be superseded by the need to keel over.

And there are plenty of studies that point to the advantages, the most recent published this week by the University of Surrey, which shows that irregular sleep patterns cause a "profound disruption" at the genetic level, and explain why shift workers are often in poor health.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 30% of Americansreport "short sleep duration" of less than six hours a night, much of it accounted for by increasingly peripatetic work habits and linked, among other things, to a possibly heightened susceptibility to Alzheimers.

As with most things, those at the top have vastly more opportunity to dictate their own schedules than those at the bottom, while telling themselves they work harder than anyone. If you have the luxury of working at home, in the White House for example, you have more pockets of leisure in your day than, say, someone working on the cash register at Starbucks. (Or Amazon, where a worker's every move is monitored by management).

Cops on the beat, meanwhile, have to be creative. According to those interviewed by the New York Times, members of the NYPD have been known to crash out in movie theatres, "on piers" and parked outside cemeteries, but the best tactic, they say, is to stay on the move and nap in the passenger seat while your partner is driving.

It's a question of degree; the successful nap is the quick re-energizer, or"caffeine nap", which can be controlled by drinking a cup of coffee before lying down, so that roughly a quarter of an hour later, the caffeine hits your system like a biological alarm clock.

The unsuccessful nap is the one that rolls on for three hours, leaving you dazed, dribbling and incapable of thought. That said, I'd rather see a cop napping on duty than engaged in something that didn't make the list, has no benefit whatsoever and makes my blood run cold every time I see it: the officer, head down, oblivious, wholly absorbed in his cellphone.

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