Asbury Park, NJ (APP) -- To help its 20 employees in the office fight through a wave of afternoon fatigue, Nationwide Planning Associates Inc. remodeled an unused closet with a recliner, a fountain and a bamboo rug. Nap time these days isn't just for preschoolers.
Employees of the Paramus, N.J., investment firm sign up for 20-minute blocks of restorative time twice a week and emerge energized, as if hitting the restart button.
"I don't even drink coffee anymore because (after a nap) you don't need to," said James Colleary, 27, a compliance principal who helped convince management that a nap room would be worth the investment. "If you take only 20 minutes, you actually feel alert (when you wake up). You feel refreshed."
Workers can be forgiven if they look at the company with envy. Armed with technology and operating in a global economy, they are a tired lot.
Without the benefit of a brief afternoon nap, they have turned to habits both healthy and unhealthy to fight their fatigue, only to be faced with the same early-morning wake-up call the next day.
Health experts have gone so far as to say worker fatigue is an epidemic that is weighing on workers' health and productivity. And employers who have ignored it - most of them - have done so at their own risk.
"The measures we have (of productivity) don't necessarily measure quality," said Joel Naroff, an economist based in Holland, Pa. "What workers learn is to get the job done. While they may be trying to get it done as best as possible, the operative phrase is 'best as possible,' not 'best.' "
Sleeping on the commute
Many workers throughout the nation may feel particularly groggy Monday morning. They lost an hour by setting their clocks ahead over the weekend for the annual ritual of daylight saving time.
New Jersey Shore-area workers arrived at the Middletown, N.J., train station one recent Monday for a trip to northern New Jersey or New York that would take upward of an hour, trudging along the sidewalk, coffee and smartphones in hand, while they waited for the train.
While some commuters scoffed at the idea that they were sleep-deprived, others flashed a knowing smile at the question. Jessica Chepauskas, 23, of Middletown, was one of them. She used to drive part of the way to her job, but recently changed her routine and now takes NJ Transit "so I get an extra hour of sleep," she said.
Technology may be getting faster and the world may be getting smaller, but the number of hours in the day hasn't changed.
American workers emerging from the recession have been under pressure to work harder, with fewer hands on deck. They've been handed technology to help them remain in constant touch. And they've been taking care of children and aging parents.
Some 43% of Americans ages 13 to 64 said they rarely or never get a good night's sleep on weeknights, according to a 2011 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, a research group based in Arlington, Va.
Part of the problem?
Humans are designed to set their sleep patterns around daylight and nightfall. Yet almost everyone - 95% - said they use electronics, including television, computers, video games, cellphones or a combination of them within an hour of bedtime, subjecting themselves to an artificial light that isn't conducive to restful sleep, researchers from the foundation said.
It creates all sorts of hazards. Fatigued workers have trouble concentrating and are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and depression, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And they can put others' lives at risk. Continental Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., to Buffalo, N.Y., crashed on its approach in February 2009, killing 49 passengers and crew members and one person on the ground. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots' performance was probably impaired by fatigue.
"Reducing accidents and incidents caused by human fatigue has been on the NTSB's Most Wanted List since 1990," the agency wrote in its accident report.
Despite alerts such as that from the NTSB, employers have been slow to pay attention to sleep, said Carol Ash, director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health System in New Jersey, who consults with Fortune 500 companies.
It seems odd. Employers, trying to rein in soaring health care costs, have increasingly taken on more oversight of their workers' wellness. They have prodded their workers to exercise. They have encouraged them to keep their blood pressure, cholesterol and weight in check. But they don't think twice about asking them to be on call 24/7, Ash said.
Meanwhile, until the fourth quarter of last year, employers recovering from the recession had tried to stay afloat with gains in productivity, squeezing more work from their existing staff, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.
But the figures don't measure the quality of work.
"For the vast majority of people, it's a formula for failure," Ash said. "The more you have a sleep deficit, the lower the productivity. It's an inverse relationship."
Not that every employer needs to carve out space for naps. Ash said workers needing time to nap could be cured if they got a restful night of sleep. (A 2010 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, a trade group, found just 5% of employers had a nap room on site.)
But Colleary saw the possibilities.
He had an internship with a bank in New York that touted a nap room, only it wasn't well-thought-out. There was room for three people. There were no assigned times. He would open the door, turn on the light, and inadvertently wake anyone who was trying to nap.
At Nationwide Planning Associates, he gathered data showing the benefits of napping, scheduled a meeting with management and convinced them to spend as much as $10,000 on the project.
Colleary said they make sure there are enough employees to handle calls from clients. And if they are short-staffed on a given day, they will forgo their nap. But the bulk of his co-workers have taken the company up on the perk.
"It was a long time in the making," Colleary said. "It was the middle of the day, and we would say, 'I'm really tired.' 'Me, too, I wish we could take a nap, ha ha ha.' Then over time it became more serious, and we thought, what if we really could do this?"