Narcolepsy: Managing Your Job or School

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 07, 2023
4 min read

For an adult with narcolepsy, work or college brings extra challenges. Bouts of daytime sleepiness can make it harder to concentrate and perform. Classmates or co-workers who don’t understand may interpret your symptoms as laziness. But living with narcolepsy doesn’t mean you can’t succeed at work or school. When you manage your symptoms with discipline, build flexibility into your routines, and openly ask for help, you may be just as productive as everyone else.

Narcolepsy is a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under this law, your employer must make reasonable accommodations, like letting you adjust your schedule or take brief rest breaks, to deal with your narcolepsy symptoms. Similarly, a college must offer accommodations and adjust programs to ensure you have the same access to higher education as everyone else.

However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not recognize narcolepsy as a medical condition that would make you eligible for disability benefits. If you want to press your case that narcolepsy prevents you from working full time, you need to complete the SSA’s Residual Functional Capacity Assessment. You also may want to hire a lawyer who specializes in SSA appeals.

The ADA only protects you if your employer knows about your condition. So don’t wait until you have a problem at work to tell your boss about your condition. It’s a good idea to push through your anxiety and have a candid talk with your supervisor sooner rather than later. You might also want to have separate chats with co-workers whom you think need to know.

Keep the meeting with your boss informal if possible. Consider the following tips to help you prepare:

  • Bring basic informational materials about narcolepsy to educate your boss.
  • Have your doctor write your boss an explanatory letter about your condition.
  • Decide in advance the accommodations you will request to help you do your job well.

Depending on your workplace, you may need a formal meeting with your supervisor and someone from Human Resources to request reasonable accommodations. It’s a good idea to let a lawyer with expertise on the ADA draft or review your letter.

The following are some common requests that employees with narcolepsy may make:

  1. Scheduled nap breaks during the day in a designated private room
  2. A later start time, in case you need to take breaks during your commute for safe driving
  3. Shifts scheduled for when you’re most alert or the option to work on a flexible schedule
  4. Breaks that meet your needs, whether that’s longer ones or shorter, more frequent ones
  5. The option to break up repetitive, monotonous tasks throughout the day to help you stay alert
  6. Scheduled walks at various times during the day to help with your energy and alertness
  7. A standing desk and the option to stand rather than sit during longer meetings or presentations
  8. Work instructions provided both verbally and in writing, so you don’t miss anything
  9. Permission to record meetings, so you can watch/listen later at your own pace
  10. A workspace with natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting

Bear in mind that not all requests are reasonable. For example, it would be hard for a trucking company to let you continue driving, since people with narcolepsy have a greater risk for motor vehicle accidents. Unfortunately, narcolepsy may limit some job choices. But it does not mean you can’t have a successful career.

Some tactics from the workplace will also help you as a college student with narcolepsy. For example, it’s smart to approach the professor on the first day of class to ask for flexibility. You need to prioritize a good night’s sleep and schedule time for naps during the day. This could sometimes cause you to miss class or arrive late.

Find out if your school has a center for students with disabilities. This might be where you will make your request for accommodations. Some accommodations you can ask for, or that may already be available, are:

  • Priority registration so you can schedule classes for the times of the day you are most alert
  • A note taking service for students with disabilities
  • Classes in first-floor classrooms or in buildings with elevators if you have cataplexy
  • Permission to record classes and lectures

Besides formal accommodations, you can also take steps to stay as productive as possible in school. Here are a few tips:

  • Join a study group whose members can provide notes from classes when you can’t stay focused.
  • If your college is far from home, find a place to nap on campus.
  • Remember that long nights of partying and drinking, or even an all-nighter spent studying, can trigger your narcolepsy symptoms the next day.

The school’s center for students with disabilities or a college advisor may have more advice and training that will set you up for academic success.