Naptitude To keep up with hectic schedules and days that never seem to end. Washingtonians lead the country in recognizing the need for a little shut-eye.

August 11, 1998|By ELLEN GAMERMAN | ELLEN GAMERMAN,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The other attorneys gave Jonathan Gottlieb puzzled looks as he emerged from his 12th-floor office. They wondered why, when their hard-driving colleague had seemed so busy with the legal briefs on his desk, his face was all creased and his eyes were bleary.

Gottlieb's explanation was simple: He had been napping.

In this power city, where career-obsessed professionals toil around the clock to get ahead, many are brazenly dozing at their desks. As faxes pile up and phone messages clog their voice mail, these go-getters are sleeping in their suits, hoping to recharge in the middle of their extra-long workdays. Indeed, more than a few in the capital are hard at work sound asleep.

"People do it," says Gottlieb, 26, an associate at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a high-octane Washington firm known for influential clients and insider lawyers. "You see them lean back in their chairs -- all the papers in their hands fall onto their chests and they fall asleep. It's not a subject some people talk about, but it's done."

Gottlieb sleeps in his chair, while others prefer the floor, couches, even bathroom stalls, according to one expert who is conducting a national napping survey (subjects say they flush when they wake up, to continue the ruse). A book in praise of napping hit the New York Times business best seller list recently, and its author is holding corporate seminars to address workplace napping questions. (Typical concern: Do naughty things happen in coed nap rooms?)

Office napping may be a new trend in the rest of the country, but in workaholic Washington it has been a trick for years. Considering the schedules here, it's amazing anyone is awake.

In embassies and international offices, naps are essential for folks working in two time zones -- one here and one overseas. Elsewhere, political analysts say a snooze is key for staying fresh between TV appearances. And young professionals say a nap helps them survive long bouts with dry government documents -- drudge work necessary to their fledgling careers.

"It's almost always for 15 minutes, like clockwork," says Gottlieb, who normally naps by clearing away stacks of papers to make way for his face, which he lays on his desk while his legs dangle from his chair. When he wakes up, he is raring to go again. "I'm usually groggy at first, but I just shake it off. Nobody cares as long as you get your work done."

Still, few so boldly advertise their nap habits. The good-humored Gottlieb, who is leaving the firm for a court clerkship, says nappers need not be ashamed. He wryly observes that his napping testimonial will be worth it "if I can give comfort to one other napper out there."

To erase the stigma, the Washington-based National Sleep Foundation this year hired its first-ever lobbyist in part to win greater national acceptance for the nap. The lobbyist will try to convince federal lawmakers to take action against workplace fatigue, which the foundation says contributes to everything from oil spills to airplane crashes.

Proud nap advocates attest: Even the big shots do it. Washington's Nappers in Important Places (NIPs?) include Bill Clinton and a bipartisan raft of former presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. In the House and Senate cloakrooms, under the protective gaze of a guard, lawmakers nap with impunity. Even at the Pentagon, nappers are outing themselves.

"I just lean back in my chair, let my head fall in my chest, cross my arms in front of me and hope that I don't drool," says Col. John A. Smith. With battle-tested logic, he insists that a nap is fine "as long as it doesn't take away from the mission."

It's no wonder he needs a nap. Smith, an Army spokesman, rises at 4: 45 every morning and returns home at 8 p.m. He tells his secretary to hold his calls for about 10 minutes after lunch, and falls into what he compares to a total blackout -- a sudden, dreamless sleep.

"It's just mindless, quick rejuvenation," says Smith, an accomplished napper who dozed on a five-minute helicopter ride into tension-wracked Somalia six years ago and even drifted off during a root canal in a dentist's chair in Germany (local anesthetic, no gas).

National napping enthusiasts want the rest of the population to follow Smith's lead. Boston University psychologist Bill Anthony is conducting a survey of nap habits for a new book and hopes naps will become an office perk, like lunch hours and coffee breaks. And author Jim Maas, whose "Power Sleep" is a big seller, is busy touting the benefits of good naps to corporate CEOs while hawking his own "power nap clock" with an easy 15-minute alarm.

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