Asleep on the Job? Take a Nap

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

April 2, 2002 -- Taking a nap on the job may not be the faux pas it once was. A new survey shows that most Americans support mid-shift naps, and limits on the maximum number of hours certain professionals work, in order to ensure alertness and public safety.

The National Sleep Foundation's 2002 Sleep in America Poll shows there's a big gap between what the public thinks is a reasonable work schedule for doctors, pilots, truck drivers, and other professionals, and the hours they actually work.

"We often aren't inclined to ask about how much sleep professionals such as pilots, doctors, or nurses have had in the 24 hours before we use their services," says Richard L. Gelula, executive director of the National Sleep Foundation, in a news release. "But in an age of 24-hour operations and efforts to streamline workforces, it's a question a lot more of us should be asking."

The poll asked respondents about the maximum number of hours certain professionals should work in a day in order to be alert and provide services safely. Researchers found most Americans support sleeping on the job if it increases safety.

For example, 86% said that an airline pilot should be able to nap during a flight to overcome drowsiness if another qualified pilot can take the controls. Sixty-three percent also said a pilot's maximum workday should not exceed eight hours. Current federal regulations prohibit napping and limit pilots to 16 hours on duty with a maximum of eight hours actual flying time and an eight-hour rest time in each 24-hour period.

The poll found one of the biggest areas of concern is doctors' work schedules. If the poll respondents knew their doctor had been on duty for 24 consecutive hours, 86% said they would feel anxious about their own safety, and 70% would probably ask for another doctor.

According to the American Medical Student Association, medical residents sometimes work up to 120 hours a week and often in the form of 24- and 36-hour shifts. Currently, there are no national work-hour limits on practicing doctors or medical residents.

Other findings of the sleep poll include:

  • More than half of those asked believe a doctor's work hours should be longer than those of other professions, with a maximum workday of 10 or more hours.
  • Half of poll respondents said the maximum workday for police officers and truck drivers should be limited to a maximum of eight hours.
  • Eighty-two percent said employees should not be required to work beyond their normal shift if they say they are too tired or sleepy.