(LifeWire) -- At Jason Keith's last job, he discovered a colleague sound asleep at work -- head back, mouth open, snoring loudly -- while his co-workers laughed and snapped photos with their cell phone cameras.
Sleepy employees cost companies in productivity and health care.
"At first I thought he was faking it, but he was completely passed out," says Keith, 31, who works for a digital printing company outside Boston, Massachusetts. "He left the company about a month after that episode."
Caryn Melton, 43, has nodded off during meetings, at her desk and even during a corporate event. Melton, who works for a marketing firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says she doesn't sleep well at night so she is often tired during the day.
"I love napping. I turn my chair around so my colleagues can't see me, but I have been caught before. Luckily, I haven't gotten in trouble. I just get teased by my colleagues," she says.
A sleep-deprived nation
Melton isn't alone in her struggle to stay awake on the job.
One-third of those surveyed for the National Sleep Foundation's annual "Sleep in America" poll had fallen asleep or become sleepy at work in the past month. The telephone survey questioned 1,000 adults in the continental United States and was conducted between September 25, 2007, and November 19, 2007.
The poll also found that Americans are working more and sleeping less. The average amount of sleep was six hours and 40 minutes a night. The average workday? Nine hours and 28 minutes. Calculate your weekly sleep hours and work hours »
"We are a sleep-deprived nation," says Rubin Naiman, a sleep specialist with a doctorate in clinical psychology and the director of sleep programs at Miraval, a health and wellness center in Tucson, Arizona. "We need at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night for optimal health."
Recognizing that on-the-job sleepiness can affect the bottom line -- the Sleep Foundation puts the annual cost at $100 billion in lost productivity, health care costs and employee absences, among other factors -- companies are coming up with novel ways to boost employees' energy levels. Watch how sleep loss can harm the brain
"You would be surprised how many companies are providing nap rooms," says Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher with a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University and author of "Take a Nap! Change Your Life." "Although it is still somewhat of a stigma for some companies, it's a growing trend."
Maureen Lippe, founder of New York public relations agency Lippe Taylor, doesn't offer just one nap room for her tired employees. She has three. "We call them serenity rooms. I put one on each of the three floors," she says.
Outfitted with large sofas, blankets and comfortable chairs, the rooms are phone- and BlackBerry-free zones. "A lot of people nap in our serenity rooms, even me," Lippe says.
Other companies forgo beds and blankets and focus instead on creating an environment that emphasizes wellness and relaxation, reasoning that such a setting will keep employees refreshed and alert.
OPNET Technologies, a software company with headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, provides a "Zen computer garden" with plants, Internet access, couches, lounge chairs and other amenities where staff can enjoy downtime. The FruitGuys, a San Francisco fruit-delivery company, doesn't have a nap room, but its employees enjoy unlimited fresh fruit.
Mednick says that although meditation, fresh fruit and other healthy benefits are great, naps should be part of the equation. She encourages companies to create a workplace napping policy.
"Napping doesn't have to happen just because you are not getting enough sleep," Mednick says. "There is often a dip in your body, physically, in the afternoon when your concentration is low, and a nap can increase alertness." Mednick suggests that companies provide dark, isolated rooms where people can stretch out horizontally.
A 'Band-Aid' solution?
While some people favor napping on the job, others are skeptical.
"I think that napping at work is a Band-Aid solution. It's trendy for companies, it makes it seem like your employer is concerned, but it doesn't really go to the heart of the real problem, which is that people are not getting enough sleep," says Dale Read, president of the Specialty Sleep Association, a nonprofit trade and industry group representing manufacturers and retailers of air, foam and other types of beds.
Although Read isn't against napping, he compares a 20-minute nap to "drinking a shot of sugar soda" -- it wakes you up in the moment but doesn't equal good nutrition in the long run.
Naiman disagrees. "There is ample data confirming that naps are refreshing, improve mood, enhance performance and lower blood pressure. Naps are an important part of the solution to our sleep-deprived culture."
Tips for a good night's sleep
One thing all the experts agree on? A good night's sleep is essential. They recommend the following:
• Institute a sleep routine: Go to bed at a specific time every night, take a warm shower, read a book or meditate to relax.
• Consume caffeine and alcohol in moderation. Naiman recommends avoiding caffeine after lunch. About alcohol, he says, "Less is better, earlier is better and with food is better."
• Don't go to bed full or famished. "A light snack a few minutes before bed consisting of natural or complex carbs such as a piece of fruit or some nut bread is ideal," Naiman says.
• Make sure your room is cool and dark.
• Find a comfortable mattress and pillow.
But if all else fails, follow Jason Keith's example. "When I take a nap at work, I do it in my car," he says.
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Maya Dollarhide, a Brooklyn-based writer, has written for Yoga+Joyful Living magazine.
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