Is it legal to nap on the job?

Professor Drew Dawson is Director of the Appleton Institute, CQU, – one of the largest behavioural sleep research groups in Australia. Dawson has worked extensively with Australian companies and government agencies in the design, implementation and evaluation of fatigue management systems in a range of industries including aviation, manufacturing, retail, entertainment, transportation and mining sectors.

Due to his internationally recognised expertise in fatigue management Professor Drew Dawson has provided expert witness testimony in many fatigue-related court cases.

NapNow asked him a simple question about a complex area of law: – is it legal to nap at work?

Let’s break it down. If your boss says it’s ok to nap at work, is it?


What if your boss has not said napping is OK and
a. you nap within your own break time, at lunch for example?

That’s OK, (but unlikely given that many people only have half an hour for lunch), as long as you don’t create a safety hazard in the workplace when you do nap.

b. you nap during work time?

It depends on whether it’s intentional or not.

Unintentional napping: If you fall asleep inadvertently, in front of the computer for example, this has not been regarded a disciplinary offence.

Intentional napping: In the past, the law has ruled that in workplaces where napping is not permitted, and an individual intentionally falls asleep during work time– as evidenced by making a ‘nest’ for themselves with pillows on the floor for example – it is a potential disciplinary offence.

There have been cases where workers have been disciplined for this, even dismissed. This has tended to be in very male-dominated, hierarchical and unionised industries such as manufacturing and mining. When a person has been dismissed it’s generally not the first time that person has been disciplined – there’s usually been a history of problems.

I would suggest that the appropriate response to ‘were you sleeping on the job?’ is “no I was not, I was, in actual fact, engaging in a safety and performance promoting behaviour!”

Also relevant is the ‘custom and practice’ convention. Even if there is not a policy that napping is OK, but it’s well known that everyone around here does it, then that can provide grounds for defence.

Due to the nature of their work, napping amongst ambulance drivers is common even when there’s been no formal policy. Several years ago in the ACT there was an incident of an ambulance driver taking a phone call on waking from about a 40-minute nap, then going to the wrong address. This was presumably caused from the sleep inertia that can follow longer naps.
The initial reaction to this mistake was the ACT minister ruling that there would be no ‘sleeping on the job’. But this caused more problems than it solved because the end result was ambulance drivers who were even more tired. A formal napping policy was subsequently introduced that stipulated you can’t have two people napping at the same time, the phone is to be answered by the non-napping person and the non-napper would drive while the other took time to wake up properly.

Today the whole issue is much more likely to be managed by common sense than it was 20 years ago when there wasn’t as much awareness about the effects of fatigue. But there is still a lot of work to do before employees feel OK saying ‘I am not safe, and a I need to nap’.

DISCLAIMER this conversation does not constitute legal advice.