Editor’s Note: Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist. He is a medical analyst for NPR station WABE 90.1 in Atlanta. He writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Ford Vox: If a job demands alertness beyond the limits of normal physiology, then employers should provide a break for naps

CNN  — 

The Secret Service has earned yet another embarrassing black mark unbefitting such an elite agency. A Homeland Security inspector caught two agents sleeping on the job. Tasked with protecting the president, the Secret Service has merited heightened scrutiny itself in the past three years thanks to several high-profile behavior and security lapses. But this time the agents at fault might have a legitimate excuse, and it’s one more employers should heed.

Nodding off at work isn’t as scandalous as bedding down prostitutes, which agents reportedly accomplished ahead of a visit by President Obama to Colombia back in 2012. The agents accused in that scandal defended themselves with the “everybody does it” excuse, only further damaging the agency’s reputation. To finish it off, we learned on-assignment hijinks occur with enough frequency to earn their own code name – the “Secret Circus.”

And a little dozing didn’t explain why agents couldn’t stop a man jumping the White House fence and accomplishing a mad dash well into East Room, nor why the agency misled reporters to say they stopped him at the door.

And while they might have been a little sleepy by that point, it was probably the alcohol on board after an evening’s festivities that explained why two senior agents drove through a White House investigation scene this past March, bumping a barrier and almost running over the subject of the investigation, a suspicious package.

The agency has plenty to atone for, and these new accusations from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General must sting. That’s probably why the agency so vigorously defended itself, denying that “scheduling and staffing issues” were contributing factors. The Secret Service wants us to know the two agents are at fault, not the agency itself.

Inspectors spotted the two somnolent agents this summer while evaluating Secret Service operations on other business. Despite the agency’s protestations, inspectors report one agent had worked 60 hours of overtime in the preceding two weeks while the other agent’s schedule demanded 12-hour days in the summer heat without sufficient water.

Secret Service agents have tough jobs, and steely people take these jobs. But they’re not superhuman. We can’t get around that fact that some necessary jobs don’t match human physiology too well.

One of the agents getting his Z’s had recently finished a 36-hour shift overseas. Photojournalists regularly snap shots of diplomats and high government officials dozing under similar globe-trotting conditions, in fact we’ve got a gallery of them right here:

If people stretching the bounds of the normal circadian clock or the natural 24-hour day don’t plan out their sleep with strategic napping in order to accomplish the job, the sleep will happen whether they like it or not. OK, a photographer might welcome it.

Naps aren’t a perfect solution, but many of life’s tasks aren’t ideal, either. While a full night’s sleep (actually taken at night) is preferred, napping does work. There’s solid science with dozens of studies demonstrating improvements in measures of mental functioning after brief naps ranging from minutes to a couple of hours. One study, for example, showed that just a 10-minute snooze worked to improve measures of cognitive performance as well as relieve sleepiness.

Employers such as the Secret Service should look toward the airline industry, where pilots and air traffic controllers often take naps. There’s a growing movement for nurses working on overnight shifts to take nap breaks too.

Arianna Huffington has waged a much-needed sleep hygiene crusade this year. Prioritizing sleep is a theme in her latest book, “Thrive,” and she credits her new relationship with sleep as a key factor in finding her work-life balance. The Huffington Post offices include nap rooms, and they’re one of a growing list of companies, ranging from Nike to Google, who embrace the power nap’s potential.

So growing numbers of shoe designers, programmers and writers get it. It’s time pistol-packing professions swipe more shut-eye, too.

You don’t really want a Secret Service agent on the job for 36 hours, anyway. That agent might not be a whole lot more useful than the one who’s asleep. A study of healthy young adults found that after sleep deprivation for just 20 to 25 hours, mental performance deteriorated to match intoxicated subjects who had a blood alcohol level of 0.1% - enough to get you arrested behind the wheel anywhere.

The studies on sleep deprivation could hardly analogize more clearly to intoxication: poor memory and attention, blurred vision and dis-coordination are all well-documented. We don’t want people in this condition guarding the president.

If managers don’t have the wisdom to encourage employees in high-risk jobs to take strategic naps when necessary, and provide the facilities and coverage to do so, they’re actually encouraging their employees to trade in their own risk for ours. None of us wants a drowsy nurse or a snoring pilot, but if the people working these jobs think they’ll face punishment for requesting a nap, they’ll try to tough it out instead. And that’s the kind of thing that could get us all in trouble.

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