I’m a Sleep Psychologist and My Buffer for Burnout Is Napping

It’s time to embrace siesta culture, and give your brain the wonder of a five-minute break.

Dr. Jade Wu in a hammock, relaxing while holding her baby.

When was the last time you did nothing? Okay, now a harder question: When was the last time you did nothing and felt absolutely no guilt at all about it?

Americans are obsessed with productivity. If we’re not hustling, we’re grinding. A perfect example of how ingrained this is in our culture is this 2021 Superbowl commercial that flipped Dolly Partin’s hit “9 to 5” to “5 to 9.” What is the 5 to 9? It’s the hours we’re apparently supposed to use to launch our side hustle.

I’m here to tell you: You don’t need a 9 to 5 and a 5 to 9. What you need is rest

This is especially true if you’re a woman. According to a 2021 UN report, the global pandemic increased the share of unpaid domestic and care work that women across world carry. Women’s days have gotten longer as their childcare and elder-care duties have expanded. Beyond increasing care roles, many Americans are working more hours from home than they did pre-pandemic. At this point, our lives have become less grind culture and more pure pulverization.

And yet: In the middle of the pandemic, the “5 to 9” commercial aired, urging women — at whom the ad is clearly aimed — to take on one more thing.

According to Shani Orgad, Ph.D., a professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Politics, this shouldn’t be a surprise. In a piece she wrote for the London School of Economics Business Review, Orgad argues the side hustle fantasy actually has its roots in Thatcherism and Reaganism. In the 1980s, as politicians were dismantling social safety nets, they simultaneously began casting second jobs for women as the foundation for an entrepreneurial dream. Not because gig-economy work really advanced women’s careers, but because politicians were systematically making it harder and harder for women to survive without their second-shift income.

The same thing was happening in 2020 and 2021, as schools closed and governments gave a collective shrug while families across the world struggled. But according to the minds behind “5 to 9,” what you needed wasn’t help caring for your kids — it was hitting the big time by selling hand-crafted beanies on Etsy!

Forget the Etsy shop.

The best thing you can do for your health, wellbeing, and mental focus is to reject the mantra that you can “sleep when you’re dead.” Really: You need to sleep now.

Biologically, we need rest

We know chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with a higher risk for conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Research has also shown that sleep deprivation can cause an increase in symptoms of depression.

More specifically, though: We need rest during the day as well as good sleep at night.

Being focused and alert on the job engages the sympathetic nervous system. That’s the same “flight or fight” system that kept your hunter gatherer ancestors moving as they fled saber-toothed tigers. It’s meant to be engaged in short bursts. Our natural circadian rhythms, therefore, tell us we should probably slow down and take a little break after lunch — just in case there’s another tiger around the bend. This is siesta culture, and it exists all over the world for a reason — because our bodies need a midday break.

Expecting the sympathetic nervous system to be engaged from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. is just not realistic. It’s also not particularly productive.

When we allow people to take a rest in the afternoons, we see that their focus and mood improve. Allowing naps can cut down on safety problems and mistakes for EMTs. Naps may also help us regulate our emotions, so when Frank in accounting heats fish in the microwave, you’ll be less primed to say something you regret.

I’ve developed a new mantra to make sure I get the mid-day rest I need: But first, I nap

I may not say this directly to someone’s face — or in an email. However, when I feel my body and mind asking for a break, I’ll take the task I’m about to do — or the urgent email I just got — and tell myself: Yes, I will deal with this. But first, I nap. 

Of course, napping at work is a privilege not everyone can access. That’s something we need to change in American culture. However, until we make rest a heralded part of the American workday, know that all you really need is a few minutes in a time to allow your brain a break.

If your office has a quiet spot, try setting a timer for five minutes, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breath. Or, if you have to drive to an off-site meeting, park further away and take a few extra minutes to walk. As you walk, try to be in the moment. Think about what you’re seeing, smelling, and hearing. At your desk, try scheduling all meetings for 50 minutes, which gives you 10-minute microbursts of downtime throughout the day.

If you’re one of the lucky few who can access midday naps, know that it’s one of the best time investments you can make in a day. But do nap responsibly... conking out for a couple of hours in the afternoon might backfire, because such a long nap (which will include deep sleep) will take away from our nighttime sleep. The same way a large afternoon snack can cause you to pick at your dinner.

So, to make sure you’ll be able to sleep well, start with a short power nap — 20 to 30 minutes — and see how you feel. I call this a “sleep snack” — where you’re still hungry come bedtime. While, in an ideal world, it’s best to nap about the same time every day, know your body is pretty adaptable. Just don’t wait ‘til evening, when a nap might, again, interfere with nighttime sleep.

My hope is that maybe, just maybe, as American workers finally get the rest they need, we’ll all be clear-eyed and focused enough to realize that grind culture is just that: a total grind.