Getting the work-life balance right can be tricky, but have you ever been so exhausted you’ve nodded off at your desk, in a meeting or even on the phone? According to a new survey carried out on behalf of Memory Foam Warehouse, nearly half of us have done just that – and two-thirds were caught in the act.

  • 72% get less than seven hours of sleep a night
  • 31% catch up on sleep during their commute
  • 10% have been caught napping by the boss

The poll found that 47% of people admit to dropping off at some point in their working lives, with most of these saying the experience lasted five minutes or less – although 8% said they’d napped longer than 10 minutes. If this sounds surprising, consider how many of us get the recommended seven full hours of sleep every night: according to the survey, a massive 72% of us get by on less.

This is despite the fact that most respondents seemed to be aware of the value of a good night’s sleep. 86% of those polled said they often feel they need more sleep than they currently get, and 47% say they’re less productive at work when they’re tired. Additionally, 29% of people would like to see sleeping facilities in their workplace where employees can catch up on some much-needed rest.

All this napping doesn’t go undetected, either: 10% of those caught snoozing on the job were rumbled by their bosses, although a luckier 34% were nudged awake by a colleague instead. The commute to work also seems to be a popular time to catch up on some shut-eye, with 31% of people saying they sometimes sleep on the bus, train or tube – at least, we hope they’re not napping behind the wheel!

Out of the English cities surveyed, people in Nottingham came up as the most in need of sleep, with 84% of respondents in this city saying they get less than seven hours a night. However, at 57% it was people in Birmingham who were most prone to dozing off at work, closely followed by Londoners at 54%.

Participants were also asked where they tend to do their sleeping at work – the most common answer was at their desk, although a considerable number of people manage to drop off while on the toilet!

Tom, aged 26, who works in PR, said he rarely gets more than six hours of sleep a night and in a previous job regularly napped on his commute from Manchester to Leeds. “I have occasionally woken up in York, in a bit of a panic,” he added. When asked if people work too much and sleep too little, he said: “Absolutely, but it’s the culture of young professionals.”

Lisa, aged 44, who works as an office assistant, said she finds herself falling asleep when left to herself in the office, despite feeling that it’s unprofessional. “It isn’t usually the company’s fault though that an employee is tired – it’s usually down to outside circumstances in my opinion,” she added.

Chris Vaughn, Sleep Expert at Memory Foam Warehouse said: “Although nodding off at work can be amusing to the people watching, these figures point to a serious problem: people simply aren’t getting enough sleep, and it’s clearly having an effect on their professional lives. “It’s astonishing that so few respondents manage even the minimum of seven hours a night, and we urge people to make a good night’s rest a priority.”

There is an even more serious side to the nation’s sleeplessness, with recent reports showing a huge rise in type 2 diabetes among UK adults – a disease associated, among other things, with inadequate sleep. Doctors and health experts are continually raising concerns about the amount of sleep people get in the modern world.

What the experts say

Dr Peter Venn, Clinical Director of the Sleep Disorder Centre at the Queen Victoria Hospital in West Sussex, said we live in a “driven, high-performance society” in which people are often tempted to supplement real sleep with stimulants. He added that it is important to look at both the quality and the quantity of sleep people are getting.

“Disturbed sleep affects sleep quality, and one of the biggest causes of this is snoring. If you can combat these kinds of issues, then you will likely experience more quality sleep and therefore less tiredness in the daytime,” he said. Dr Venn added: “A scheduled nap when at work would probably help some people, but it is case-dependent. People need to have rest areas and to get away from their desks: they shouldn’t eat their lunch at their desk as this is not a rest. They need to allow themselves designated break time away from the workstation.”

Dr Rahul Mukherjee, Consultant Respiratory and Sleep Physician at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, pointed to a 2007 study showing that people who sleep for five, rather than seven hours a night nearly double their risk of death from all causes, particularly cardiovascular disease. “Lack of sleep seems to be related to an increase in hunger and appetite, and almost certainly to obesity. Not only does sleep loss appear to stimulate appetite, it also stimulates cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods,” he added.

Sylvie Barthelemy, a health coach in New York City who runs Stress-Free in the City, said there is “no question that we are a sleep-deprived society”, and believes employers could play a greater role in helping. “Again, people should not expect to catch up on sleep at work. It is essential to address the root cause of their sleep disturbances and fatigue with a health professional,” she said. “But if that’s being done, then I believe having a space at work where one can lie down for a few minutes is fantastic. I see the value of napping at work as much for the mind than the body. It provides an opportunity to unplug from the mental demands, get refreshed, then go back to work with greater clarity and concentration power.”