my coworker keeps falling asleep at her desk

A reader writes:

I started a new job a few months ago, working as scientific technical staff at a university. I work in an office with six others, all in similar roles, all reporting to one manager. One of my coworkers consistently falls asleep in the office.

She has had a difficult home life recently caring for her partner recovering from an accident, I know this is hard and tiring work. But she falls asleep at her desk on a near daily basis at the moment. Students and other staff come to the office to speak with her, and she jumps and starts because she’s been asleep. She handles hazardous materials and equipment, but she seems fine when doing this, it’s only at her desk that she sleeps. I have even seen her fall out of her chair because she was dozing.

It seems that this is somewhat normal for her. Another much longer term coworker has said that she “does that [falls asleep] sometimes, but who isn’t tired at work sometimes”, but it seems to have gotten worse since her partner had the accident.

Should I say something to my manager? I am still very new and all my coworkers have been here for years, if not decades, it feels strange to be the one to say it when everyone seems to accept it as the status quo.

This is complicated by the fact that you’re new.

If you weren’t new, I’d say that you should first say something to your coworker (along the lines of “Jane, are you doing okay? I noticed you’ve been falling asleep at your desk and I’m hoping everything’s okay.” If nothing else, that would hopefully tip her off that it’s happening and people are noticing, and she’d make an effort to get it under control. If it still kept happening after that, then you might discreetly mention it to her manager in case she’s unaware of it. (And the point here wouldn’t be to get Jane in trouble, but you really can’t have someone sleeping on the job — or really sleepy if they handle hazardous equipment.)

But you’re new, so this is trickier. You have less standing to do anything about it, and you may not know the culture yet. If no one else thinks this is a big deal (which is weird, but sounds like it might be the case), you could come across not only as out of sync with the culture, but as the person who reported their peer for something everyone else would have let slide, which isn’t great for your relationships with people there.

But if there’s any chance that it could be a safety issue, then you need to do it anyway. You noted that she seems fine when she’s handling hazardous materials and equipment, but if she’s falling asleep at her desk, it’s reasonable to wonder how alert she really is. I think you could bring it up with your manager from that perspective — as in, “I feel awkward mentioning this, but I’m worried about the safety implications. I’ve noticed that Jane has been falling asleep at her desk a lot lately, to the point that I once saw her fall out of her chair because she was asleep. I have no idea if it could be impacting her safety when working with hazardous materials and equipment, but it seems like enough of a risk that I wanted to mention it.”

If there weren’t hazardous materials and equipment in play, then considering your newness, I’d be inclined to wait until you’d been there a little longer before saying something. But if there’s any safety issue, speak up now.

{ 250 comments… read them below }

  1. Myrin*

    I completely agree with Alison but man, what I weirdly cavalier attitude of that coworker to take. She “does that [falls asleep] sometimes, but who isn’t tired at work sometimes”, as if that were a normal thing that everyone does and can surely understand. I mean, sometimes being tired at work, sure, that’s probably a rare person who hasn’t ever experienced that, but I doubt that most people do that every day or to the extent that they’re falling into such a deep slumber that they actually fall out a chair. My goodness.

    1. Jesca*

      Yeah I mean my stepdad would have never realized he had a very dangerous form of sleep apnea if people at his work didn’t tell him how often he nodded off! He was doing it in the middle of conversations and never even noticed!

      This is tricky as a new person though to try to broach this subject. But really, falling asleep during the day every day is NOT a good sign!

      1. many bells down*

        I have a friend with the same problem. We’d all be playing a game and he’d just suddenly be asleep in his chair. 5 minutes later he’d wake back up and not even realize. And his doctor said it wasn’t narcolepsy so he was kind of at a loss until he got a CPAP.

    2. DecorativeCacti*

      We have a sleeper at my job and everyone is pretty cavalier about it. Cavalier but annoyed. It’s been brought up to management literally countless times by multiple people and nothing changes. So, what’s left but to make jokes?

      1. Former Retail Manager*

        Same here. This gentleman is long past retirement age though…like over 70. We all just laugh about it. We know his manager knows, but either can’t or won’t do anything about it. Aaaannnddd, the guy drinks coffee non-stop, to no avail. Still just dozes off multiple times a day.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          Ugh. If a younger person who hadn’t been there long couldn’t get away with it, he shouldn’t either. If you’re past retirement age and can’t do your job, retire and let someone else move up.

          – perpetual temp sick of always being the newcomer

          1. Soon to be former fed*

            It sounds like the sleeper the OP is referring to isn’t that old, but is getting away with sleeping on the job. Please don’t be ageist.

            1. Hotstreak*

              Gazebo Slayer’s post is clearly a response to Former Retail Manager’s post, not OP. No need to assume anything nefarious!

            2. tigerlily*

              Gazebo Slayer is not being ageist, they’re responding to Former Retail Manager who is referring to their own coworker who is “long past retirement ago…like over 70.”

            3. Gazebo Slayer*

              I was referring to Former Retail Manager’s coworker. And I’ve had quite capable coworkers over 70, but if someone is NOT capable to the point of long naps at work it’s not fair to anyone else to just work around it because “Wakeen’s been here forever.”

              (Actually, I have a bit of an Issue in general with unreasonable degrees of favoritism toward long-time employees – it further tilts the playing field toward people in secure, stable professional and financial situations.)

      2. TootsNYC*

        So, what’s left but to make jokes?

        Ask your coworker if she/he has talked to a doctor about sleep apnea? or narcolepsy?

        I’ve been the person whose colleagues said, “Look–we care about you, go to a doctor,” so I know that people often just limp along without the medical help that they really need. It’s the frog-in-boiling-water thing, or the belief that it’s “just how it is.”

        1. Former Hoosier*

          I used to supervise a woman who would take a nap over lunch in the store room. I didn’t mind. Her work was fine but she started falling asleep on the way home from work. Sure enough, sleep apnea.

        2. Justme*

          You can suggest they see someone about their sleeping issue without making an armchair diagnosis.

          1. TootsNYC*

            It’s also not a diagnosis to say, “Sleep apnea can cause symptoms like that, or narcolepsy, or some other medical thing. And people have actually gotten help!”

            Sometimes giving someone an idea of potential actual diagnoses can cut through the “that’s not normal, you should see a doctor” fuzz.

            1. Anna*

              No, you don’t actually have to bring a specific medical diagnosis into the conversation because it’s none of your business what’s causing it.

              1. It's-a-me*

                Suggesting that there might be a medical reason, and giving examples, can help snap someone out of the ‘I’m just tired because of my life issues’ mindset, though.

                It helps to give people alternate reasons, otherwise they can get fixated on the one they already though of.

              2. Indoor Cat*

                I dunno, it was helpful to me when I was experiencing sleep disorder symptoms. I’m not going to disclose my diagnosis, but someone saying, “Hey, you seem to fall asleep a lot without realizing it; my cousin did that and he turned out to have sleep apnea, which (1) has serious long-term consequences and (2) is fairly easy to treat.”

                Which made me want to look into a diagnosis more readily than someone saying, “Hey, I notice you fall asleep often, have you been to a doctor?” because that just made me feel nagged. Learning that there could be more serious health consequences for me *and* that treatment wouldn’t likely involve stimulants like adderall motivated me to actually take the step of seeing a doctor.

                It turned out I didn’t have sleep apnea at all, but I did have an easily treatable disorder.

            2. JanetInSC*

              Sleep apnea is a very common thing, but, sadly, many people know very little about it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “I had a friend who was tired all the time. She got a sleep study and it turned out she had sleep apnea….she’s great now.” (I love my CPAP.)

        3. DecorativeCacti*

          It’s been done. There’s seriously nothing anyone can do. At least at our level. They may have a medical condition that they have disclosed to management but no one else.

          I would think that saying, “I have sleep apnea” would be better than falling asleep in the middle of meetings and phone calls without explanation, though.

        4. DC lawyer*

          It is quite common for big law firms (in the DC area, at least) to have a nap room.

          Normal human circadian rhythms often involve a short sleepy period in the mid-afternoon.

          1. AMPG*

            When I was in college, I planned my class schedule around that mid-afternoon period whenever I could, since I’ve always had an incredibly strong urge to nap around 2:30, even when well-rested. I got sick of pinching myself to stay awake in lectures.

        5. Snark*

          Honestly, this really rankles me. Coworkers in question are grown damn adults, right? They don’t need to be told to go to the doctor. If you’re a functional grownup, that is a thing you do, and if you’re not, then you own the professional and personal fallout.

        1. Belle*

          Yeah she could have narcolepsy, you dont know. My partner has narcolepsy and it’s been very difficult. He deals with it well it’s just other people who don’t….people seem to think it’s “humorous.” Before this I never realized that disabilities were “humorous.”

          1. Snark*

            I’ve learned to never underestimate how much humanity can disappoint me when it comes to disabilities.

    3. Laura (Needs to Change Her Name)*

      A new thing to add to the list of “ways in which academia has made me weird that I don’t realize are weird until other people comment on them.” It wouldn’t occur to me that sleeping at your desk is weird. We just moved into a new building and we have glass panels in our doors and one reason everyone is annoyed is naps. When showing someone our new office/furniture setup, a colleague asked “but where is your couch, and how will you nap?” (When I was a grad student, I bought a mini pop-up tent for the office after scaring too many people by coming out from under the desk after a nap …)

      1. PB*

        I’ve been in academia for 10+ years, and would definitely be concerned about a student napping under a desk. I have seen people dosing at their desk during their break, or taking a quick 10 minute rest in the break room. Their bosses didn’t seem concerned, so I wasn’t, either.

        1. Laura (Needs to Change Her Name)*

          My program was … really not-good on work life balance. Sleeping under the desk was something that happened when I was working 12-16 hour days, I might squeeze in an hour-long nap after putting in a full day before teaching a night class or leading a review session. When I was working on my qualifying exams, there were a couple stretches of time where I basically moved into my office and subsisted on takeout.

          I do not miss grad school not one tiny bit.

          1. Lora*

            +1. That was the function of having multiple couches in the grad student lounge and the tiny Fisher timers that clip to your coat: you can go take a nap while your blot runs.

          2. Rainy, not-PI*

            When I was in architecture school, lo these many years ago (I did not stay; it was toxic), it was pretty much accepted that you napped under your table in studio when you just couldn’t go for another minute. We’d use our shoes for a pillow and our coat for a blanket. Fifth-years got napping couches in their studios.

            1. Jane*

              Heh, I also could not hack architecture school. My neighbor bought a snazzy little cot that fit neatly under his desk for naps. The year before, we had a designated desk for napping that someone put a found piece of foam under, nicknamed “the chateau.”

            2. urban planner*

              yup, in both undergrad (music performance) and grad school (urban planning, but housed in an architecture department) it was not unusual to sleep on campus– under desks, on couches, in practice rooms… In undergrad, a student basically moved into a practice room for the last week or so before her senior recital. At the university where I did my grad program there was a special room you could get access to that was in theory an all-purpose space, but in actuality was used primarily as a nap room. I pulled more than my fair share of all nighters and mid-all-nighter short naps at both institutions, but always felt a twinge of dread in grad school when I looked around and realized the rest of the planners had gone home and it was just me and the architects…

              1. Kaden Lee*

                I can see it. Seniors in my industrial engineering program got keycode access to an exclusive computer lab. I fell asleep in that lab quite a bit. I also remember walking past a group asleep in the main atrium on couches with sleeping bags and pillows as I went to an 8am class. They were awake and working again at 9am break.

            3. Cercis*

              I once visited the architecture school at OK State with a friend. All the seniors had cots and various sleeping situations set up. The friend we were visiting proudly told us that she’d canceled her dorm for the year, since another friend was nice enough to let her store clothing in her dorm room and would allow her to shower on a regular basis. She’d go the friend’s dorm in the morning, shower and change clothing and then back to her studio to work. I think she paid the friend a little something for the use.

          3. Dr. Ruthless*

            I had a classmate in grad school who moved into the graduate student carrels–showered in the gym, made food in the kitchenette. He was getting away with it until he dragged enough chairs into the carrel-wing he’d commandeered (pillow-fort style) that the fire marshal made the department kick him out.

        2. KG, Ph.D.*

          When I was a grad student, our lab had a hammock in the storage closet! It’s surprisingly difficult to sleep in a hammock, as there’s a slight swaying regardless of how still you try to stay. That said, I still managed it when needed. :)

        3. Student*

          Sleeping under the desk was a time-honored tradition at the lab I did my grad school program in. A stupid tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. Our adviser slept in his office during certain busy parts of the work. He made it clear he expected the 24-7 quick response time available from having grad students sleep in their offices during busy times. He’d even lend you his office.

          Which led to the Most Awkward Boss Discussion I have ever had the displeasure of being involved in: wherein I explained to my grad school boss, in no uncertain terms, that I was not sleeping at my desk, and I was not sleeping at his desk, under any circumstances – I lived close enough to the lab to provide a 15-minute response time and he’d either have to staff the project better or deal with a 15-minute turnaround on said issues. Yes, we did have a female grad student who was all too happy to sleep in his office when called upon to do so, and I cannot believe they were willing to put up with the terrible optics of doing that (and seemingly blithely unaware of the bad optics). And she wore footie-pajamas.

          1. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

            Is ‘optics’ a new word? I’ve never seen it before and sudden it’s all over.

            1. Rainy, not-PI*

              Nope. In English the first use of “optics” to indicate appearance or perspective dates back to the 1950s, and the usage specifically to indicate a political appearance dates back to the U.S.’s Carter administration. It is possible that this precise sense might have been borrowed from the German–apparently Optik has been used in this way in German for some time.

      2. Corvid*

        Haha, you see a ton of weird stuff in academia. I knew a researcher who lived in her office for weeks on end. Scared hell out of me when I was doing late night lab work and ran into her on the way to the kitchen…

      3. Manders*

        Yep, my parents are both professors and they don’t find sleeping at work weird at all. My mom has told me she used to nap after coming back to work after maternity leave (probably too early, but that’s academia for you). My dad is doing a lot of caretaking duties that keep him up at night and he uses his office to nap between classes. It might be considered slightly weirder if staff were doing it in an open-plan office, but academics do sleep in their offices.

        It still does sound like there’s something wrong with OP’s coworker–she’s falling out of her chair, and it sounds like she’s falling asleep unintentionally instead of taking power naps. It’s possible that she does have a legitimate medical problem and no one has talked to her about it because napping’s become normalized in this office.

      4. blackcat*

        Yup. I have been encouraged to nap in the office as a grad student. We currently have an awesome futon in my cubical area that has miraculously gone uncommented on by facilities. It is often used for naps.

        I have also been asked to perform time-sensitive tasks at 10pm at night or at 7am on a Sunday. No one begrudges a nap.

      5. Another person*

        Yeah, many of my labmates have fallen asleep at their desk (during a normal work-week, not during late night experiments). I’ve definitely slept for a couple hour stretches under the table in the breakroom (and I’m in a program with a good work-life balance–sometimes you just have to check on an experiment every hour for 24 hours because that is what the science needs–you just take the next day off). In an academic lab, especially at a desk not in the lab, I would not find this odd at all.

    4. The IT Manager*

      This is so odd.

      I have dozed off at my desk in an open cubical system when I was working full time and pulling late nights working on a degree. I was embarrassed and tried to prevent it.

      There was also the old man past retirement eligible who had a cubical office and could be heard snoring every day after lunch. This did not help his credibility.

      In short: I completely agree with Alison but, man, what a weirdly cavalier attitude to take. This isn’t normal especially if she’s being “caught” by students and other staff seeking her out for work purposes.

      1. Not a Real Giraffe*

        Hah, we had the past-retirement eligible napper man in my office until recently, too. He finally retired, and I hope he spends his post-lunch nap on a couch now, rather than teetering precariously in an office swivel chair!

    5. Jaguar*

      I straight-up cannot keep my eyes open (no falling out of the chair, though) if I’m reading reference materials for more than an hour and I get plenty of sleep, eat well, and exercise. When I used to do physical labour and had inconsistent short sleep, haphazard diet and no exercise outside of work, I was fine all day.

      Dozing off at work isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing.

      1. Princess Carolyn*

        In college, I often fell asleep with my face in my book, and I was not the sort of student to push through real fatigue during studying. Something about the posture and the quiet (and probably the eye strain) just put me right to sleep.

      2. kiwidg1*

        +1. I think reading documents all day on a computer is somewhat hypnotizing, and I’ve often fallen asleep in front of my computer while doing it. I have a theory that if my screen saver hasn’t kicked in, then dozing off for a couple of minutes isn’t that bad of a thing.

        When I was supervising a bunch of people on an overnight shift, I told them if you really can’t stay awake at your desk, go to the bathroom, lock the door, and set an alarm for five minutes. I’d rather you did that than nod off in front of nine other people.

        Others have said it – one size does not fit all. I hope that people who read these comments understand that people are human. The LW explained that the Nodder is undergoing extra stress right now. Cut her some slack and be supportive instead of thinking only about telling managers what’s going on.

        1. Jaguar*

          I chew pens (I know, I know – but I kicked biting my nails years ago and I no longer destroy my master’s shoes, so…) and my “oopsie” is when the pen falls out of my mouth. “Okay, pull it together, Jaguar.”

    6. Ramona Flowers*

      A lot of people think sleep disorders aren’t a thing because who doesn’t get tired. I have narcolepsy and if I had a penny for everyone who’s tried to tell me tiredness isn’t an illness / everyone gets tired sometimes / etc etc I’d be very rich indeed.

      1. Karma*

        I get this too. I have Fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (otherwise known as chronic fatigue) and people don’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between feeling tired from a late night or a long busy day and the soul crushing exhaustion that comes with ME and/or Fibro.

      2. Rachel Paterson*

        Same for trying to explain the ADHD symptom nobody seems to know about: sleepiness if brain is not sufficiently engaged. I used to work at public schools in Japan, and the amount of time I had between classes some days, with all my prep work done and no grading to be done, definitely facilitated a lot of fighting against sleep and napping at my desk. It was embarrassing to go to classes with fabric grooves on my face from my sleeves, but my contracting company backed me up on my medical issues when my school complained to them about my nodding off. Which is weird, the complaining I mean, because it’s common for people to desk-nap in Japan (sitting up though, which I rarely managed) – coworkers will think you are tired from working, and it’s accepted as a cultural thing (this is also a society that has a specific word for “death by overwork”, though, and the recent overtime-limiting law capped it at 100 hours per week! so work norms are a bit different here!).

    7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think the attitude is a little weird, but I’ve seen it so often—both in academia and in law. There was a clerk who took naps under her desk (I find this bizarre), so when her boss couldn’t find her after a few tries, people finally told him she was sleeping under her desk. He brought her a cot from the local homeless shelter the next day so she wouldn’t have to sleep under her desk. I still can’t totally sort out my feelings about it.

      1. Foreign Octopus*

        Both supportive and weird?

        Maybe there was more going on there that the boss already knew about but, yeah, weird.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          He’s honestly just the nicest man on the face of the earth. The cot was because he’s a long-term volunteer, so he took one of the cots he’d purchased and gave it to her. He was really worried about her working too hard, but she said that it was a habit she had since childhood, so it was his attempt to accommodate her (not in the ADA sense, but just in the being a nice person sense).

    8. OP*

      I mean… yeah. The coworker said that when I mentioned it to them and I was sort of taken aback. I mentioned it to him because I didn’t know if she had some sort of medical condition that I didn’t know about, but he didn’t say anything like that was at play.

    9. KG, Ph.D.*

      I have a friend who has fairly mild narcolepsy, and she often falls asleep during PowerPoint presentations if the lights are dimmed. She is surprisingly cavalier about it as well, but she’s also surprisingly cavalier about many things in life, including cleaning up after her cats when they poop on her roommate’s bed (ask me how I know).

      1. Former Hoosier*

        I have worked with people with narcolepsy before and they usually tell co workers. Of course, no one has to and no one should be forced to but it is one way to address the obvious up front.

      2. Viola Dace*

        Narcolepsy is not the same things as not being able to stay awake during a boring presentation.
        It is closer to a seizure disorder with excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and the instant drop into sleep. Cataplexy, which can be triggered by strong emotions, has often been misdiagnosed as epilepsy.
        My father has had it for over 40 years.

    10. Say what, now?*

      I kinda wonder if the more senior employees know something the OP doesn’t. Like maybe they know that she has narcolepsy or a side effect of a depression medication that she’s on to deal with the stress of caring for a spouse. Even though they may have been told this, they might not feel good handing that information out. I wouldn’t either. If I knew that it was medically related I would just make an off-handed joke and try to end to conversation, too.

      1. always in email jail*

        I basically wrote the exact same below before seeing your comment, but obviously agree. I’d make a cavalier off-handed comment too if I was covering for someone’s medical situation

        1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

          In my opinion: if this person has a known medical condition, of course the people who know about it shouldn’t tell OP all the details, but I think they could and should let her know that the relevant people are aware of the situation and everything is under control. OP is genuinely concerned and deserves to know. Some kind of “I can’t tell you the full story but I want to assure you that you don’t need to be worried” message should be possible to give without telling any personal details.

    11. always in email jail*

      Maybe there IS an underlying medical condition that work/coworkers are aware of, but they don’t feel it’s their place to out this person’s medical condition to the newbie?

  2. Zip Silver*

    I’ve found that the best cure for the post-lunch grogginess (usually around 2pm for me) is to just take a quick nap. I’m much more productive afterwards. Although, I’ve got my own office, so I can close the door for 20 minutes no problem.

    1. GermanGirl*

      Yep, a quick power nap or drinking some coffee before lunch so it kicks in at the same time as the after lunch grogginess. But not everybody can deal with coffee on a nearly empty stomach, and some people avoid coffee for medical reasons, so for those of us who can’t do it with coffee, the power nap is a really good option.

      Another idea might be to try if different foods for lunch make you less groggy.

    2. TootsNYC*

      At my internship, an older woman on staff used to commandeer the office of anyone who went out to lunch, and she’d sleep on the floor, partly under the desk.

      It was her lunch period–why would I care how she spent it?
      She openly declared that this was how she was spending her lunch.

      But that’s not the same thing as nodding off unintentionally and in an uncontrolled way while you’re trying to work.

        1. cheluzal*

          I’ve done that, and in Florida the sun is so warm (even with low a/c on) that it lulls you out quickly.
          Set alarm on cell and wake up super refreshed!
          It’s time siestas come to America!

    3. TurquoiseCow*

      I’ve known people who went out to their cars for a nap at lunch.

      Personally, I like chocolate. Lately, that’s taken the form of a granola bar with chocolate chips, but I’m a chocoholic, so I don’t know if another form of food would do it for others.

      1. GermanGirl*

        Chocolate actually contains a bit of caffeine, too, so that might help.

        I was actually thinking more on the lines of not eating foods that are very fat or very hard to digest, because I tend to get tired from those.

      2. BetterInGreen*

        I did this yesterday for the first time ever, and it was because I was so tired my eyes were closing while I was trying to work.
        I didn’t sleep very well, kept waking with a start and then going under again, but 30 minutes was enough to help me get through the rest of the day.

      1. J*

        I would be concerned about an employee falling asleep at work. I think it’s worth bringing up to your manager as Alison suggested. Suddenly starting to fall asleep at work could be many things…. but in the case of one of my employees, it was a symptom of depression. As a manager, I can’t diagnose employees (and don’t want to) but I can ask “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been really tired at work, showing up late repeatedly and those things are out of character. Do you want to talk about it?” I do care about them, and if they need help, I want to point them in the right direction if that is what they ask for. And if it’s a performance problem, I need to deal with it.

  3. Jeanne*

    It sounds to me like a scientist who is fine in the lab and sleepy at her desk. I would ask you to examine your motivations. Are you really concerned about safety? You don’t really seem to be. Is it just unfair because she sleeps and you can’t? If that’s it then let it go. Maybe her lab work is so good they don’t care about 30 minutes sleeping vs 30 minutes on smoke break.

    1. OP*

      I am genuinely concerned about both the safety of the students she supervises and how it looks to other members of staff when they come to talk to her and she’s asleep.

      1. Mike C.*

        Wait, if you have serious safety issues why do the optics even come into play? Why haven’t you told you management yet that you have serious concerns about people getting hurt?

        1. OP*

          Because, so far, I haven’t seen her doing anything dangerous or unsafe. Like I said, she’s always awake in the lab. But I have seen her waking as soon as other people come to ask her about things.

          Yes, the ‘optics’ are a distant secondary issue, but still something I can’t help but think about.

          1. Mike C.*

            Don’t wait for something bad to happen before you report a safety concern. Stop replying here and do it right now.

            I’m sorry this sounds so harsh, but it could mean the difference between someone getting hurt or not. Call, email, in person, whatever, do it now.

            1. Zip Zap*

              I’d be concerned about something happening to her. What if someone stole from her or did something else harmful while she was asleep? If she has a good reason to take naps on the job, she should probably at least lock the door and put up a Do Not Disturb sign. I would bring it up as though you assume it’s a medical thing and are only concerned about safety.

              But, yeah, it could be impacting the department’s reputation. It also sets a bad example for students who could get the wrong idea about what’s going on.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OP, can you tease this out a bit? To be fair, I would also be concerned about safety/appearances. But I think teasing it out might also help you figure out if there’s an appropriate role for you to play in raising the issue.

        (FWIW, I agree with Alison that you should raise it with your coworker before escalating any concerns.)

      3. Katie Sullivan*

        I don’t see how sleeping is putting anyone at risk. I think you should consider that this is not your business. It seems busybody. Impression management for the office is not your issue. I feel bad for the co-worker that you’ve come on board and are taking this on as an issue. Who knows what’s going on with her?

      1. Jeanne*

        I find many of these issues to be more about “not fair” than anything else. It’s easy to tell yourself you are worried about some other issue. But I want OP to take the time, think it through, and be completely honest. What is your most basic thought about this? We’ve often talked about the slack given to high performers with all kinds of sibjects. Why is it worse to sleep for 30 minutes a day than to take 5 smoke breaks or 3 coffee breaks or other time wasting things you’ve seen coworkers do? It makes no sense.

        1. OP*

          Honestly, my most basic thought it that I feel sorry for her but I’m worried one day she’ll make a mistake and potentially harm many people. I would feel incredibly guilty if something happened and I hadn’t raised my concerns.

          1. MicroManagered*

            Then I say speak to your manager and say exactly that. Nothing about the “optics” issue–which is an issue, for sure, but I think if you have legitimate safety concerns, those supersede anything else.

        2. JB (not in Houston)*

          There is nothing at all in the letter to suggest that the OP is mad that this coworker gets to nap and she doesn’t.

          I mean, from the sound of it, it seems like if the OP wanted to nap, she could probably get away with it.

        3. Rat in the Sugar*

          Well, OP mentioned that they work with hazardous materials at this job. Taking too many smokes or coffee breaks while I’m supposed to be at my desk doesn’t mean I’m going to gallivant off and leave for a ciggy in the middle of working with something dangerous, but if I’m so tired that I can’t help nodding off and falling out of my chair, it’s not crazy to wonder if I’m so tired I can’t help nodding off in the lab.

    2. PB*

      This doesn’t seem fair. She isn’t just getting sleepy at her desk. She is falling so soundly asleep that she has fallen out of her chair. The safety concerns really can’t be minimized, and OP sounds concerned to me.

  4. Specialk9*

    Yeah, if not for the Hazmat issue, I’d let it slide. I wonder if you would be willing to frame it as being open to take on some of her duties for a month, while her partner recovers. Because this situation does require empathy, and you could come out of this looking like a jerk if you’re not careful, but it also needs to be resolved.

  5. viceroy*

    You can notice, and let her know you’ve noticed, her falling asleep at work by bringing her a coffee one afternoon. “Oh, I got one for myself, looks like you could use one too.”

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        It’s completely passive aggressive and caffeine isn’t actually a great solution anyway.

      1. Whatchamacalllit*

        These responses are fairly harsh; even if this isn’t a great idea, I think it came from a good place.

        1. Jeanne*

          Yes. It was trying to be kind. If you offer to get coffee for coworker A it’s kind. If you offer to get coffee for coworker B it’s passive-aggressive. If she doesn’t like coffee she knows how to say no thank you.

          1. High Warlock of Queens*

            The comment doesn’t say to offer to get her one, or ask if she wants one, it says to present her with one and tell her she needs it. Which is PA af, frankly. Not a kind or thoughtful way to address the issue.

          2. Whatchamacalllit*

            Yes, I see it as thoughtful and generous. You see someone having a rough go of it and offer something small. Seeing this as passive aggressive is a stretch IMHO. I think more workplaces could use shows of empathy.

            1. Whatchamacalllit*

              P.S. If anyone here HASN’T been given something they didn’t *specifically* request, be it a gift you probably won’t use, a food item you don’t enjoy, etc…. well, I’ll eat all of my hats. I’m the least optimistic person ever but I see generosity even in the giving of small things I don’t really dig.

              1. Attie*

                As someone who really, really hates coffee, to the point where I could not convincingly fake even tolerance if I tried to drink it, someone coming up to my desk with a mug would put me in an incredibly awkward situation. I’ve had relationships with supervisors sour over refusing to drink coffee. Somehow, people tend to take it very badly if you politely refuse their “generous” gesture.

  6. Mike C.*

    What’s the pressure level at this job? University labs are notorious for working people long, long hours that I wouldn’t be surprised if napping were overlooked in between experiments. I’ve seen similar things in my time.

    The handling of hazmat material and machinery is quite concerning because I’d have to guess that this is a problem with many of the employees there.

  7. Iris Eyes*

    If you look at it from the other side of the glass, it could be the napping that allows her to handle the dangerous elements of their job safely. She could also have some sort of sleep disorder and this is the ADA accommodation that has been settled on. Granted if either of these are the case then a place other than her desk would ideally be provided.

    Napping has been proven to increase productivity, so she could be getting more work done than you think.

    From some of the comments on this and other sites, napping seems like it is often a part of an academic lab environment.

    1. Aurion*

      I’ve worked with grad students and worked the hours of a grad student when I was an undergrad, so I completely understand the napping during the day/crashing on the couch part. But usually the people who pull such hours aren’t student-facing, but sequestered in the lab or somewhere with their work and hours mostly self-directed. It’s not a great look if students and other staff find this person napping during their office hours.

      And I’d hope if this was a medical accommodation the powers that be would give this person a better space than her desk chair that she falls out of (!!).

      I feel like OP should bring it up to her manager, because it probably isn’t her place to probe further. Their manager would know if this is appropriate between the academic culture, hazardous materials, and possible accommodations.

      1. OP*

        I think you’ve got the measure of the situation here.

        We are student facing; we are primarily student and staff support. If I found one of our grad students asleep at their desk, I wouldn’t be surprised, as they do pull long/difficult hours, but that’s not us.

        1. Aurion*

          Yeah, that’s not appropriate. Even grad students, who pull ridiculous hours and have all my sympathies for their power naps, are expected to stay awake when they hold office hours. Professional student-facing staff should be expected to do the same, absent medical accommodations or random flukes.

          I would politely bring it up to your manager, OP.

          1. Aurion*

            Or politely bring it up to your coworker. Probably coworker first if you feel she’d be receptive.

    2. Ramona Flowers*

      If it was an accommodation she’d likely need to have a safe place to sleep, be it a good chair or a quiet room. My narcolepsy is very well medicated but the occupational health assessor insisted I get a chair with a headrest in case I fall asleep and my neck jerks back with nothing to cushion my head.

      I’d be very surprised if anyone with a known sleep disorder agreed an accommodation without looking at the physical space.

  8. NW Mossy*

    My husband suffers from narcolepsy, and one thing he suggests is to talk to Jane and just say “Hey, I notice that sometimes you fall asleep. No judgment, but would you prefer that I leave you alone if I see it or wake you?” He suffers from confusion when someone wakes him, so this kind of question would give him a way to say “Yeah, go ahead and wake me up, but don’t be alarmed if I don’t seem to get what’s going on right away.”

    1. Corvid*

      I like this phrasing. It’s crucial that the OP sounds concerned/cooperative when talking to their coworker.

      Also, I feel sorry for the coworker… it seems like she’s completely exhausted.

      1. OP*

        I also feel really sorry for her! (I’m also sorry that that didn’t seem to come across in the letter) I know being a carer can be really difficult; she’s tired, stressed and worried about money. My intentions are absolutely not to get her in trouble.

        1. Jeanne*

          So what do you think will happen if you go to your manager and say “coworker is sleeping all the time and is hazardous in the lab.” Do you really think that won’t cause problems? I still don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            She’s trying to accomplish alerting her manager to a potential safety issue and an almost-definite management one. This isn’t about trying to get someone in trouble — but if the coworker does get in trouble, that’s better than her causing harm to herself or others. “Coworker gets in trouble” is not the worst of the possible outcomes here.

            1. Jeanne*

              But all the comments by OP are clear that she has not done anything unsafe in the lab. Many scientists are great in the lab and zone out over paperwork and it doesn’t make them unsafe. We know how to treat chemicals with respect. Why are we focusing on what isn’t the issue? Desks are not in the lab. And I think it’s fair to ask. OP says she doesn’t want to cause trouble so it is fair to ask what she thinks going to the manager will do. It is impossible to have it both ways.

          2. JB (not in Houston)*

            Her purpose isn’t to get the coworker in trouble, even if that’s the ultimate outcome. Say that OP had knew her coworker was omitting safety precautions in the lab to speed up her work, and doing so could or likely would lead to a dangerous situation. Surely you’d agree the OP would need to report that to her manager, even if it got the coworker in trouble, in order to prevent the dangerous situation from happening. (I’m not suggesting that if OP doesn’t speak up, a Very Bad Thing will happen–there’s not enough in the letter for me to say that one way or the other. I’m just using this as an example of how sometimes you have to speak up even if it means that someone will get in trouble, but that doesn’t mean that the reason you are speaking up is because you want to get the person in trouble)

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I really like this framing. It’s nonjudgmental and calm, but also direct and hopefully would help OP bring up the issues that are bothering them.

  9. The Smile on a Dog*

    You could go the passive-aggressive route and anonymously leave some 5-Hour Energy on her desk. Then we can all sit back and wait for the “I Sleep at Work and Someone Left 5-Hour Energy on My Desk” letter to Allison. ;)

  10. Erin*

    Hm, if everyone is aware of it, including her manager, and it’s not happening while she’s handling hazardous materials and equipment, I’d probably let it go.

    Although, I feel like there must be something else here that we and the OP are not aware of. Like that she’s the best employee at the company and that’s why they put up with this. Or, she has some kind of sleeping related medical disorder that she’s disclosed to the company.

    A little snooze here and there when you know something is going on with their home life, I could *maybe* see letting it slide. But if you’ve actually seen her fall out of her chair from sleeping and no one bats an eye? I mean, wow. We must be missing something.

    1. Jeanne*

      If she has a medical problem, I hope the manager wouldn’t tell OP. I also don’t think coworker should have to tell OP. The casual reaction of the other coworker OP talked to makes me think that her sleeping is accepted for whatever reason.

  11. Murphy*

    I have an infant and I’ve never gotten anywhere close to sleeping at work! (I say that to illustrate that I am tired all the time, not to compete with Jane’s situation.)

    1. Tableau Wizard*

      I’ll admit to dozing off while pumping once, but never past the amount of time I was supposed to be pumping – and of course no one was around!
      Though I have heard horror stories of exhausted new moms waking up hours later realizing they’re still connected to the pump…

        1. CMart*

          I am reading this while pumping at work and I think my breasts just retracted into my body thinking about that.

      1. Friday*

        I used to purposefully sleep while pumping – always made sure to set my phone alarm though! It helps greatly with the new parent fatigue.

      2. Gee Gee*

        One of my coworkers at First FT Job dozed off while pumping in the bathroom, and only woke up when someone came in and fell over the electrical cord, tearing it from the wall and yanking on the pumper’s body as well. (This was ages ago, before people seemed to GAF about proper accommodations.)

    2. Beez Louise*

      I 100% fell asleep at work when I first came back from maternity leave after having my son. Every single day was a struggle, for months.

      Now I’m almost eight months pregnant with my second child, and I’ve fallen asleep a handful of times in the last month or so. It is ROUGH trying to stay awake right now.

  12. Bee Eye LL*

    I suffer from sleep apnea and was dozing off without even realizing until somebody said something to me. It doesn’t hurt to check in so long as you don’t make a big stink about it. And if you smell alcohol on them, that’s another story!

  13. CappaCity*

    I would follow Allison’s script and mention it to your manager based on the fact she handles hazardous materials. Other commenters are saying it might be intentional on her part or a previously arranged accommodation, but I doubt it based on your description. She’s not getting a useful type of sleep or being intentional about managing student/staff expectation of her availability while she sleeping; she’s dozing off while performing tasks at her desk.

    It could be a health issue and/or tied to the uptick in her responsibilities at home, but either way – it’s not your responsibility to sort that out. The safety issue is what should concern you (and everyone), and her manager (if anyone) can suggest the she may want to see a doctor or apply for FMLA leave to care for her spouse. And if she does have some kind of accommodation worked out, her manager will know that, and at least you’ll have done your due diligence safety-wise.

    1. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

      I do feel bad for this person…I know when my wife broke her leg and was bedbound I was constantly running around and doing things at home, and dear god I was so tired.

  14. DeutschAnon*

    I also have this question but it’s a bit more complicated.

    I posted in an open thread that I share a desk setup with another person- who also falls asleep (and snores a bit!) at her desk. I haven’t said anything, since she’s also probably a viable my 600 pound life candidate, and uses a mobility scooter; I only mentioned that our desk setup is not a lot of space because she takes up a lot of physical space and also needs to put all snacks/personal items on the top of the desk because she can’t bend over.

    Still, snoring is disruptive.

    1. Stephanie the Great*

      Eesh. You could have made this same comment without being rude about your coworker’s weight.

  15. MechE31*

    At my work we have a lot of virtual meetings and I work with two individuals who cannot stay awake during them. In one day, they were both snoring on the phone during different virtual meeting.

    I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. They are both so senior that no one seems to really mind, although plenty of people poke fun. One of them recognizes it and tries to drink more coffee, take a lap around the building or just stand up if they see it happening.

  16. Ramona Flowers*

    You know, for years I thought I didn’t have a real medical condition (thanks to the doctors who wouldn’t listen and told me I was being silly) and it was only when people pointed out that, no, it’s not normal to sleep through fire evacuations or have entire conversations in your sleep that I actually realised it was worth trying to do something and gone back to see a doctor who, thankfully, listened. So I’m in favour of saying something to the person, but nothing judgemental. Don’t laugh, don’t say: how can you sleep through Very Loud Thing or disbelieve that it’s possible (because if you can then it’s really scary) or joke that you’d like to take a nap. Or draw on her (yes I’ve been there).

    Do ask what she’d like you to do, as was mentioned above. Wake her or not? My thing is I can convincingly hold a conversation while still asleep and people didn’t used to believe I was asleep. Everyone in my life knows not to believe anything I say or expect me to remember any conversation if is within 30 minutes of me having been asleep, however awake I may seem, and also not to try to wake me if I fall asleep. My manager knows to never ever phone me when I’m off sick because I may answer in my sleep and I have a written accommodation for this.

    When I was falling asleep constantly I would not have appreciated people passively aggressively giving me coffee (really doesn’t help that much) or telling me to get more sleep (actually the more I sleep the more tired I am, really lucked out with this illness) or otherwise offering poorly informed advice beginning with “why don’t you just…”

    But there is no excuse for risking others’ safety and I would also be concerned if she drives.

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        We were at university and they were drunk. But yeah, not fun.

        Though I was far more traumatised by the people who didn’t believe I could sleep through fire evacuations and gave up knocking on my door when we had one.

        1. Anony*

          But what else could they have done, short of breaking down your door? In a real evacuation, you can only spend so much time trying to get others to evacuate with you before you have to just take care of yourself.

    1. NW Mossy*

      Yeah, sleep disorders are generally under-diagnosed and not that well understood, even by physicians. My husband only learned of his because he participated in a sleep study for money as a college student and his results were so abnormal that the investigators threw out his data and referred him for further testing. His diagnosis then led both his dad and brother to be diagnosed, as they have similar symptoms and testing confirmed it. Before that initial study, none of them realized that their inability to stay awake during a lecture or a TV show was actually a medical condition, not just garden-variety exhaustion.

  17. ML*

    Why I don’t like is the attitude the coworker took. “Who isn’t tired at work sometimes.”

    It’s one thing to be tired, and it’s another to be falling asleep at your desk consistently.

    I have a good friend who had this problem and he had sleep apnea, which was undiagnosed at the time. Falling asleep at work was a regular occurence for him.

    1. Jeanne*

      I wonder if that coworker knows the real reason (like medical) but has agreed to keep it private.

      1. Bolt*

        This is the things… no one can disclose the medical accommodation to OP except for her sleepy coworker. So she may be outraged thinking everyone is brushing it off and ignoring the risks but she may never know. The manager may comment that she is aware and leave it at that.

        This is why she should be starting with her coworker – if she comes from an area of genuine concern she may discover what is going on.

  18. Kate*

    “If you weren’t new, I’d say that you should first say something to your coworker (along the lines of ‘Jane, are you doing okay? I noticed you’ve been falling asleep at your desk and I’m hoping everything’s okay.’)”

    I think being new actually gives you a bit more standing for something like this to catch your eye because falling asleep at your desk is unusual at a lot of places of employment. It’s not weird that you might notice. Also, asking if she’s OK isn’t accusatory or complainy, so unless Jane has a particularly defensive personality, I don’t see the harm in using this script, even as a new person. I agree, though, that being new might mean you have to think a little longer about whether this is something to escalate to a manager. If there are real safety concerns, then that needs to be addressed, but if it’s just that Jane does this weird thing, then I might let it slide.

  19. textbookaquarian*

    Just a thought: what if this person has a medical condition? My sister works with someone that has a sleep disorder who tends to nod off at their desk. They have been working with their doctor to diagnose it, but testing has turned up nothing yet. In the meantime there isn’t much else they can do to treat it. Fortunately the job does not deal with hazardous chemicals or heavy machinery.

    I realize that doesn’t necessarily help the LW. It just occurred to me that there may be another possibility here.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      In case this information is helpful to your sister’s colleague…

      Some doctors only do blood tests and don’t refer to sleep specialists when they should.

      Anyone with an undiagnosed sleep disorder should be given a CPAP to test for apnoea and then an overnight polysomnography and multiple sleep latency test.

      They may need to see a respiratory sleep specialist, then a neurological one.

      1. textbookaquarian*

        Thanks for the info. :) Of course I’m not privy to everything they’ve tried, but according to my sister the process has been extensive. I believe the coworker reached the neurological stage of testing recently.

  20. Karyn*

    I had this happening to me for a six month period at my last job. I sat in a corner, by myself, so it went unnoticed, but I was always paranoid that a partner would walk up and catch me and think I was just sleeping on the job when I really and truly didn’t mean to be. I would even go into the “recovery room” which had a couch and an EZ chair just to take naps during my lunch break. It wasn’t til a coworker found me almost falling off my chair that someone suggested it might be medical – and I don’t know why that never occurred to me.

    I went to my doctor and it turned out that I was on two medications that never should have been given together, because they both had daytime sleepiness as common side effects, even when taken at night. She was surprised I hadn’t fallen asleep driving.

    All this to say, there may be a medical condition causing your coworker to do this, and your manager may or may not be aware of it. I’d tread carefully on reporting it, because, as you said, you’re new and people seem to have noticed and not cared. If you see her endangering herself or others, then absolutely report it, but for now, I’d follow Alison’s advice and talk to your coworker directly.

  21. Another possible issue*

    We had a co-worker who would fall asleep thanks to his meds. The administration’s stance was that he was covered by the ADA, so everyone WAS pretty cavalier about it. If he snored too loudly we’d wake him up, otherwise he’d wake up on his own in a few minutes.

  22. Philosophy Prof...*

    She could have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, a CPAP could make a huge difference.

  23. Amma*

    I have mild narcolepsy and the wake/sleep cycle here is very familiar. Managing fine (if being a bit dopey sometimes) when standing up and moving around v/s desk time and the inevitable sleeping. It is crazy embarrasing, and people are really rude about it because they – as you put it in your letter – don’t get how I can be fine one minutes and out of it the next. Narcolepsy can be agravated by stress which may be why it’s been less of an issue in the past – particularly with milder forms that go through cycles. (In my state at least) diagnosis is a nightmare, and can easily be missed – but supporting evidence from other can make a lot of difference. I think you should speak to your co-worker about it and suggest the possibility gently.

    (and remember that she might be embarrassed/defensive!)

  24. arcya*

    I am a postdoctoral fellow at a large university and have worked in academic biomedical research for many years. You all aren’t going to like this but here is the situation: OP, leave this one alone. Academia is weird, scientific research is weird. If she isn’t impacting your job specifically you are going to look like a ridiculous complainer. She’s awake enough to do her job – we both know that tons of hazardous work is done by exhausted researchers anyway, so she’s in good company there. Yes, it’s unprofessional. She shouldn’t do it. But complaining about it to her PI / core director (in this specific environment of academic research) will make you look like the real problem.

    1. blackcat*

      I agree. I posted above about the normalcy of people napping in my grad student area. I do not do lab work, but many of my fellow grad students do work with some super dangerous stuff (both equipment & chemicals). If you are standing (as is normal in the lab), it is much easier to be alert/awake/focused, even when quite tired.

      Falling asleep at one’s desk is considered normal in academia, even if it is not appropriate for someone in this role. If the manager/supervisor is a PhD holder, I don’t believe they would see a problem.

      1. Myrin*

        I really want to gently push back against this “falling asleep at one’s des is considered normal in academia” idea that I see in some comments here. I’ve worked in academia and academia-adjacent for five years now and falling asleep at your desk (or under your desk! or in the closet!) would never be considered appropriate let alone normal in any of the departmens I’ve been at. Granted, I’m not in science (where I hear this is more common) and also not in the US; I totally believe you guys when you’re saying this but I really feel like this can paint a distorted picture of the institution as a whole and like this is somehow something people should expect and accept.

        1. OP*

          Thank you for this. I really don’t think it’s normal for our institute either (although I concede I could be wrong!), we’re also not in the US.

          1. CMart*

            I also think even if it were normal, what is happening to your coworker is not the same as “taking a quick nap because I have 20 spare minutes”.

            There is a really big difference between deliberate naps (like curling up under your desk) and dutifully trying to work and nodding off over your keyboard despite yourself. One is something done with intent, the other is worrisome. I think you know the difference, which is why you are worried and why you wrote in.

          2. arcya*

            Probably wait and see what really is normal for your institute, since you’re so new? It’s hard to say what is normal there – I know scientists & core facilities personnel who nap at their desks (and tbh that is like the tamest quirk for an academic researcher to have, it gets so much stranger than that) internationally and in a variety of fields.

            The larger question here is, what do you want to have happen? It is likely the manager is aware of the issue, and if she isn’t then the work is getting done without too many problems. Your co-worker probably knows that she dozes off at her desk. There are no indications that anything unsafe is happening. What is the best-case scenario here? And does it impact your work in any meaningful way?

        2. blackcat*

          I am in science (though an interdisciplinary subfield), and my experience is consistent with the notion that it is much more common in science. (My experience has also been that scientists are in the office/lab far more than humanties or even social science folks are in the office.)

          But I’ve been in a range of academic settings at this point, and, in all of them, sleeping at ones desk/in the office has been considered normal. Maybe all of us have totally broken normal-meters, but I’d bet good money that OP’s boss’s normal meter is just as broken as mine. So if OP goes to the boss and says “Sleeping is not okay!” or even “I am concerned about coworker sleeping in the office,” she runs a real risk of looking bad herself.

          1. Aurion*

            I saw this a lot in science academia too, but the part that gives me pause is that OP’s coworker is falling asleep when she’s in her customer-facing role. I think PIs, profs, and grad students all understand overlooking people sleeping at their desks so long as it’s in “private”–in their office, at their lab, whatever. But students and other staff (by “other staff” I assume that means people outside of their office or department) are noticing OP’s coworker nodding off. That feels different to me, and would be like…a grad student/TA falling asleep in the middle of their office hours, which wouldn’t be as bad as a TA falling asleep in the middle of a discussion group they’re hosting, but they’d still be expected to be “present.”

            The main part of OP (and OP’s coworker’s) job is support for staff and students, so nodding off randomly seems a lot more worrisome than the intentional naps grad students and postdocs have at their desks when no one external is expected to be around.

            My experience with science academia was pretty short so maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like even if OP is ultimately outvoted by academic norms, it wouldn’t be that odd for her to be concerned, would it?

        3. Julia*

          I think the difference is: Are you an exempt person who’s paid as long as work gets done? Or are you hourly/non-exempt and are basically paid to sleep?

          If a professor or grad student spends all night in the lab or grading papers (not everyone in academia works in labs!), sure let them sleep in their offices unless their snoring disturbs anyone.

          If not… I had a colleague who fell asleep almost every afternoon either watching TV or reading the paper during work hours, while I did what she was “too busy” to do. We were non-exempt, so she wasn’t making that time up, and she was always the last one in and the first one out. It was more than a bit annoying.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah—I don’t think this is common in public-facing (or student-facing) roles in the academy. At least it’s not common in my experience. There was a significant difference between grad students falling asleep in the grad lounge, their offices, or the lab, but not in their office during office hours. The former is kind of normal (although frankly not normal for everyone—certainly not for a lot of staff and faculty), but sleeping when you’re supposed to interact with the outside world is not super common, ime.

    2. Esme Squalor*

      I agree. Especially because the other colleague’s response was to make light of it and change the subject when the LW brought it up. Clearly this is something people are aware of, and the LW, as the newbie, should take her cue from them. If there’s compelling evidence that the co-worker’s sleeping is putting anyone in danger, that would be different, but it sounds like she’s perfectly alert for the lab work. I’d leave this alone, OP.

    3. Rat in the Sugar*

      I don’t think “but everyone else does things in an unsafe way” is a very good argument!

    4. ZVA*

      Yeah, I was going to say—plenty of the other people doing hazardous work in your vicinity might be overtired, OP, and you’d have no way of knowing. And certain environments are more conducive to sleep than others… so I wouldn’t be surprised if she was falling asleep at her desk but never in the lab or anywhere else.

      In college, I nearly nodded off many times in class, for example, but once I got up and started walking around again I was fine.

    5. attie*

      Yeah, I share a lab with about 20 postgrads (including some bioengineering people who occasionally do actual lab work, although I only work with computers) and at any given time there’s at least one person taking a nap at their desk. It’s a thing.

  25. LANA*

    I saw some others mentioned narcolepsy already and that was the first thing I thought. Not only because as one commenter mentioned it can be aggravated by stress but also because she seems fine when handling hazardous materials. Important note, I am not a doctor! But I did study narcolepsy some with one of my classes and I now have a colleague with it and since I had an interest in it I asked her about hers and she only dozes when she is sitting still, which may be similar to OP’s coworker. As others recommended, I would gently bring it to her attention and maybe suggest she see a doctor.

  26. Statler von Waldorf*

    I have severe sleep apnea, and the only reason I found out was that I was falling asleep at my desk at work and my boss took me aside and told me to go see a doctor. Now I’m looking at requiring open-heart surgery to fix the damage to my heart that was caused by decades of sleep apnea.

    That’s why I agree with Alison that you should bring it up directly with them, not in a “I want you to get in trouble” sort of way, but in a “I’m concerned about one of my fellow human beings” way. I was completely unaware that I was stopping breathing in my sleep, even though I was doing it over 100 times every hour. All I knew is that I was tired all the time. It’s possible your co-worker is in the same position.

    I wouldn’t bring it up to your manager until you have established yourself more. You are not your co-workers manager, so you really don’t have the professional standing to make a big deal about it, and it will probably reflect badly on you if you try to do so. Unless you can see a clear safety concern that overrides that, I don’t see how bringing it up will help you at all.

  27. I'm Not Phyllis*

    If I were your coworker I’d want you to mention it to me before going to the manager so I’m going to suggest that. You seem like you’re genuinely concerned about her so come at it from that angle. It’s possible that she has a medical condition (one that she may or may not know about) … she may be able to put your mind at ease, or it’s possible that she may not even realize she’s asleep, in which case you may push her to speak to her doctor.

    I fell asleep at work once in a non-academia world where it would have been decidedly Not Okay. At this time in my life I was practically living at a hospital helping to care for a sick relative and I was simply just exhausted, so that could be the case here too. But in her shoes I’d still rather hear it from my coworker then have them go to my manager.

  28. CMDRBNA*

    I worked in an office where our office manager, whose desk was also the reception desk, regularly fell asleep. Like, deeply enough asleep that people coming into the office would pause and then look around and try to find someone else because they didn’t want to wake him.

    I worked for the feds at the time and this guy would hair-trigger file an EEO complaint any time anyone tried to get him to do work (he was suing the department when I left – long story, but if there ever was a poster child for a useless lawsuit-happy, false discrimination claim-making fed, he was it!) so no one ever did anything. Our director would walk past him and just shake his head and keep going.

    LW, I thin you should talk to the coworker first. Just ask her if she wants you to wake her up or not, and see if there’s anything she needs. Maybe you could cover her desk for 15-20 minutes and she could go nap in her car? Honestly, unless she is literally dozing off while operating heavy equipment, I wouldn’t say anything to your managers without talking to her first, especially since you’re new. Maybe I’m jaded, but I just see nothing happening and you getting in trouble for saying anything.

  29. Startup Hell Lisa*

    Is she by chance not from the US? Napping at work is very normal in China, for example. I’m working with some folks from Beijing right now and they all take 1-2 naps a day at their desks every single day.

    1. GermanGirl*

      Yes, or if the coworker is Asian that could also explain why she thinks it’s normal.
      I’ve had that experience with Asian exchange students. They usually were at their desk for 10-12 hours a day, but they’d take a couple of head on desk naps during the day. In contrast, the local students would usually arrive later and leave earlier but would only take a short lunch break and the occasional trip to the coffee machine, but wouldn’t usually nap (maybe once a month). It’s just a cultural difference.

    2. Zip Zap*

      That sounds amazing. I’m a lot more productive when I take short naps as needed during the day. Sometimes even a five minute nap makes a big difference.

    3. AcademiaNut*

      I’m in Taiwan, and it’s normal for people to take a short nap at their desk after lunch – it’s a holdover from school routines. So if you go into the admin office just after lunch, the lights are off and everyone is face down on their desk. I’m also in academia, and we have an Ikea folding bed in one control room for naps for the people who sometimes need to work the 7pm to 2am shift.

      But it’s *not* normal for people to involuntarily fall asleep at their desks, to the point of falling off their chair.

  30. kc89*

    Being so tired you literally can’t keep your eyes open is such a strange sensation (assuming it doesn’t happen to you often, I suppose). I had it while traveling alone recently and I didn’t want to sleep alone in public but my head just kept falling down no matter what I did.

  31. stitchinthyme*

    I once had a coworker who’d regularly fall asleep at his desk — once or twice right on his keyboard, causing his computer to beep endlessly, and he still didn’t hear it! My other coworkers actually did try to tell the boss about it, but he never believed them — he and this coworker were basically part of the old-boys’ club and went way back to a consulting company that had been bought out by our employer, while the rest of us had come in after that buyout and so were much newer. But one day the coworker happened to be sleeping when the boss came into our work area, and my coworker silently motioned him to go and look, and sure enough, the guy was fast asleep. Boss took a cart that we used to move computer parts with and RAMMED it into the wall of the guy’s cube…”What? I wasn’t asleep!”

    Amazingly, the coworker wasn’t fired for that — he was fired some months later for passing bad checks (a particularly serious offense when your employer is a bank).

  32. Not really a waitress*

    My sister would doze off, and I admit, we had messed with her couple of times. But it became serious when she dozed off while driving and ended up totaling two cars. Turned out she did have sleep apnea. I am sure she dozed at work too. I would quietly go to co-worker, pre apologetically, and ask if there was a problem, etc. As someone else said, Academia is a little odd and doesn’t follow traditional rules, and there is need to go to supervisor directly.

    1. Stardust*

      Can we not with the childish “snitch” idea? I swear to god, whenever a topic like this comes up there are comments behaving like “snitching” is the worst possible thing someone could ever do in their workplace ever.

        1. Stardust*

          I meant that the idea of “snitching” (just like “tattling”) is childish, not that scott is. I aplogize if it came across that way.

        2. Woaah*

          The very idea of accusing an adult of snitching or tattling is ridiculous. Alison has previously advised commenters to not utilise that language.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m with you on this. This is not inherently a “snitching/tattling” situation if there are possible safety and managerial problems that stem from it.

        But I do think OP should talk to their coworker, first.

    2. Zip Zap*

      Yeah, but this is a situation where it’s reasonable to be concerned about the co-worker. It isn’t snitching.

    3. Student*

      If she handles stuff that could harm colleagues or members of the public if not dealt with properly, would THAT change your opinion? I handle chemicals that could kill members of the public if disposed of down the drain or otherwise handled improperly. I handle radioactive gas, powders, and other stuff that could harm the public or contaminate public facilities if I mishandle them. All of those could trivially harm my colleagues if I mishandle them inside the lab, or cost the public taxpayers a small fortune to clean up in case of an accident. I handle electrical stuff that could hurt or kill myself or my co-workers if I do it wrong.

      Sleeping in lab doesn’t just mean some nerd’s experiment-of-the-week is ruined or a lab coat gets stained. It can and does cost people lives, limbs, cancer, other job illnesses, and extensive taxpayer dollars.

      1. DC lawyer*

        Which is why a well-run and forward-looking lab would provide a place for employees to take a power nap, so that they don’t have to hide what they’re doing.

  33. Lily in NYC*

    I bet the boss already knows. This is the kind of thing people notice – just look at all the comments talking about their office napper. They are everywhere. I would stay out of it.

  34. Gee Gee*

    Sleep disorders are often a major PITA to deal with, so it may be possible that she has tried and failed at treatment, or is still attempting to find a proper diagnosis. (Not excusing her behavior, just sharing experiences.)

    My husband is a life-long insomniac and has attempted multiple sleep studies. The researchers got downright nasty with him because he was not able to fall asleep, and they accused him of “wasting their time” on multiple occasions. He followed directions for preparation, he was compliant in the lab, he Just. Can’t. Sleep. They seemed to think that he should be able to magically nod off for their observational convenience at the drop of a hat.

    1. Mrs. Fenris*

      My experience with sleep specialists is that sleep apnea is the only thing they know how to treat. The questionnaire they gave me basically asked me a bunch of different ways, “are you SURE you don’t have sleep apnea?” My very very long standing sleep maintenance insomnia baffled them completely. I never felt that a sleep study would be helpful. Everybody stands around and watches at 2 AM as my brain becomes as fully awake as it does in the middle of the day. Yay.

      1. Astor*

        This is 100% my experience as well. All the questions were built around sleep apnea and while the specialists I spoke with know that there are other things, they have no idea how to diagnose them based on the methods that they use.

        All I’ve gotten out of sleep lab studies are “your sleep is disordered” and “you do not have sleep apnea”. Which is useful to have documented, but wasn’t anything I didn’t already know.

    2. misspiggy*

      Wow. I just want to say melatonin, in case that hasn’t been tried – it has proved the key to a very similar sounding husband situation.

  35. Former Retail Manager*

    No time to read all the comments…but if no one has suggested it, perhaps if you can find a longtime co-worker whom you have a good rapport with who is hopefully also on good terms with the napper, you could ask them if management is aware of the napping. If they are, maybe inquire as to whether co-worker has seen any safety concerns as a result or if management has addressed safety concerns. And depending on the outcome of that convo, you can go from there. They may be able to tell you that “yes, Bob has a mild sleeping issue, everyone is aware including the manager, and the department has been told it’s not an issue.” However, if they tell you that it’s just accepted and management doesn’t know, and you decide to tell management, you’ve then “outed” yourself essentially. How that will go over with your new co-workers is really unknown without details of those dynamics. Maybe they’ll appreciate that you raised a safety concern that has been weighing on their mind or maybe they’ll think you stuck your nose where it didn’t belong. Hard to say. But I’d start with asking a couple of co-workers, if you can, and ideally the napper themselves, before heading to the manager. And I’d ONLY mention safety. NOTHING about optics.

  36. Woaah*

    Husband was in academia, didn’t realize, despite my warnings, that the kind of napping he was doing was not typical. One falling asleep in a meeting and while holding a pipette later, he has severe sleep apnea. Is hooked up to machine, now functional, cheerier, with better cholesterol! Seriously though, she may not realize how bad or frequent it is, definitely follow Allison’s advice. Also a relative can no longer work in his field after putting a co-worker in danger and refusing treatment for a sleep disorder.

  37. N Twello*

    The LW clearly stated that there was no safety issue (she only falls asleep at her desk) so the LW should mind his own business. Some people need to nap, and modern cube farms don’t provide anywhere to do it.

    This is no different from someone who notices a co-worker coming in late; they don’t know how much their co-worker works at home, or how late they stay, and it’s an issue that’s completely between the co-worker and her manager. The only time you should speak to a person’s manager about their work habits (other than something like a safety issue) is if it’s affecting you: if, for example, their low productivity is putting pressure on you.

    The LW shouldn’t address this issue with the sleepy co-worker, even if he has been there a long time. It’s simply none of his business, and in this case he has his answer already: the extra work at home is wearing the poor woman out. It’s possible that the best way for her to be productive (and to be able to handle the chemicals safely) is to take the odd nap at her desk.

  38. cheluzal*

    I’ve been a 24/7 caretaker to a bed-ridden disabled brother…It.Is.Brutal, physically and mentally.
    Cut them some slack.

    Heck, I *want* them napping if it gives that burst of energy before messing with hazardous stuff.
    I’m jealous–I want to nap! Can’t.

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        I was thinking that. She is basically working two jobs. One of which is both physically and emotionally exhausting.

        She might be fine doing the physical aspects of the job because she’s up and moving around. It’s the quiet moments when her brain and body might be telling her that it’s time to get rest.

        Also, how warm is your office? If a room is too stuffy with no air circulation, I sometimes find myself getting sleepy if I’m already a little tired. (Too bad and I feel faint, which is worse but garners more sympathy.)

  39. AK*

    I had a coworker do the exact same thing you describe although this is a regular office not in an academic setting. Her husband was in a terrible car accident and became the primary caretaker of the family. On top of that, she was diabetic and had many health problems so our team tried to be sympathetic to her situation. Eventually, our manager gave her a chat yet there wasn’t much we could do but laugh it off. She eventually went on med leave.

  40. matcha123*

    Is falling asleep like, 30 minute naps? Or is it more like, 1 minute or so? To be honest, I find myself dozing off multiple times throughout the day. I’m sure I was partly asleep at least 30 times this morning. And I’ve almost fallen out of my chair more times than I can count.

    But, the same goes for my coworkers. And why does it matter? I am expending a huge amount of mental energy on my job. I get up every hour to stretch, I drink coffee and water, I chew gum.

    I don’t get how watching YouTube, taking personal phone calls, and doing online shopping are fine (based on what people have written in past threads), but a quick nap throughout the day isn’t? Again, a minute or two is different from 15 minutes or even an hour. And, by the way, if someone wants to sleep during their lunch break, why is that an issue?

    I also don’t see how it’s endangering others, especially since it seems that when she needs to be particularly alert and focused, she is.

  41. Catabodua*

    This is making me slightly nostalgic for a former workplace who had a sleeper. People would just leave notes for him on what they needed (this was pre-email days). It was well known by management but nothing changed.

  42. radiolady*

    I work for a small family owned radio station. Two of our employees are 78 and 80, respectively. Daily naps at the desk are normal. When the boss is out, they use his couch.

  43. Jaydee*

    You know, I think being new is actually the perfect opportunity to say something. Dozing off at work is unusual enough behavior that it’s normal to be concerned about it, especially if you know your coworker is under stress and might therefore not be sleeping well at night. If this really is a long-standing habit, you haven’t been there long enough to know that. I think saying something to the coworker like what Alison suggested (“Jane, are you doing okay? I noticed you falling asleep at your desk a couple times recently and wondered if everything is alright.”) would be fine.

    1. straws*

      I agree with this. I see no harm in at least starting with a quick comment/question to the coworker. She knows what’s happening, and it shouldn’t be shocking that it might concern a new person who isn’t used to it. It opens the conversation for her to use whatever explanation she’s comfortable with in the workplace, if it’s a medical condition. As someone who is about to be diagnosed with narcolepsy (my neurologist is very confident – sleep study next month!), I’d appreciate the opportunity to give an explanation prior to my manager being alerted. If she doesn’t react well or give a satisfactory answer and there’s still a concern, nothing about asking first will prevent you from moving up to the manager at that point.

  44. Not Allison*

    Ugh, one of my direct reports falls asleep in meetings. It was brought to my attention by management so I had a sit-down with her. She told me it was her meds, I encouraged her to get it checked out but she still nods off every now and then. If her work otherwise is good, what can you do, repeatedly ask her not to sleep at work?

  45. Sleepy*

    Maybe she’s narcoleptic? haha. I don’t know. I think raising it with her first is best. I think it could cause tension if you went directly to your manager without speaking to her about it first. You’re new. Maybe this has been worked out with management long before you came aboard and is something that was discussed so long ago it’s not on radar anymore. You haven’t seen her make mistakes in the lab, so she probably is choosing to nap in office and stay refreshed for lab work. Optics wise to other coworkers and student workers it is bad, but is it really a safety concern or is it more an optics concern?

  46. Lily the Retailer*

    FWIW, I personally have narcolepsy and sleep apnea, and would definitely be falling asleep at my desk if I wasn’t taking multiple medications (and using a CPAP at night) to control it. OP, you are so thoughtful to be concerned about your manager. Please keep us in the loop on how things turn out!

    1. Sleepy*

      I can’t help but wonder though, if this manager already knows she has a sleep disorder and most of the staff do too. OP is new, so she may be overstepping if she goes above the head. She should definitely just ask the person directly instead of looking like a busybody. Because this may already be a documented medical issue.

  47. Kevin*

    I think it’s interesting how many times Alison mentions having “standing” to address something or not. I’d like to hear more about that, it seems there’s a lot to unpack there. What gives a person standing? If you don’t have standing, is there a way to go about getting it? Is standing the same as status in an organization, or is it more complex than that? I’m very intrigued.

  48. Stephanie the Great*

    I’m kind of uncomfortable with the level of armchair diagnosing going on here.

  49. Julia*

    I have an office job I’ve been at for six years. For at least two I’ve had trouble with falling asleep at my desk. Luckily I have my own office so no one has noticed.
    It seems to be a combination of things. Stress is definitely a factor – I perk up when I’m not at work.
    I also fall asleep when I don’t hear other people around, it’s too quiet – I’ve noticed this all my life.
    And last, almost all my work is math and data. It feels like the other side of my brain needs stimulation! I perk up when I get to read something interesting, or interact on FB at lunch, or investigate something.
    Getting more sleep helps, but even when I’ve had 7 hours I can still fall asleep at work. I’ve had days when I felt energetic getting up, then sleepy by midmorning at work.
    I’m in therapy for post-traumatic stress from a bad childhood – I don’t know if my current sleepiness is post-traumatic.
    Hope this helps…If Jane’s sleepiness is stress-related, it could be that she’s stressed while working with the dangerous materials and then when she’s back safe at her desk, relaxes and falls asleep. Has she tried walking and moving around, shaking out the stress, before going back to her desk?

  50. SleepyBri*

    Lots of people havery already mentioned this, but sleep disorders are rough, y’all.
    And even if it’s not a disorder, being excessively sleepy is very hard to manage.
    I have Narcolepsy with Cataplexy, and it’s considered extremely well managed. That being said, I do still need to take naps at work a couple times a week if the excessive daytime sleepiness gets overwhelming. I have a big clunky old chair tucked away in a private area for my use, but I have napped at my desk when I was REALLY sleepy and couldn’t make it to my chair.

    I would suggest what some others have. Let her know you’ve noticed, ask her if she’d like to be left alone or woken up, and respect that. Especially given that this has been happening for years, and everyone is pretty cavalier with it. My coworkers are with my situation/accommodation too, because they see it as a part of treatment and a way for me to be more effective at work.

    I also wouldn’t worry as much about the lab safety and here’s why. If the entire office knows this is something she does, it stands to reason her boss knows. If there is a medical reason behind the napping, she may be using naps as a reasonable accommodation which allows her to manage her EDS and work safely. Even if she’s just exhausted due to taking care of her spouse, she may have recognized that those daily naps allow her to get though the day safely.

    You’re wonderful to be concerned about a coworker, just make sure you respect the answers you’re given.

  51. Wintermute*

    I feel very, very strongly that you should always investigate your own motives and the actual concerns and risks with something like this.

    I see way too many people that get upset only because “I work harder than Jane does!” not realizing that life isn’t a zero-sum game, if you do better work because of this you will rise on your own if (and this is the big, important if) that’s something your workplace values. Every workplace values different things and sometimes not being a hard worker is seen as no big deal compared to what you do bring to the table.

    So, in short, don’t go into this out of a sense of just being upset someone else doesn’t work as hard as you do, it sounds likely here that you’re misunderstanding the work’s value structure since other people don’t seem perturbed.

    Also, examine your true motives, is “I’m concerned about safety” true? or is it a cover for “I am upset I think she works less hard than I do and if I *say* it’s about safety I have plausible deniability when I tell the boss so it doesn’t look like petty tattling”?

    If it’s the later why? why mess with someone else’s career just because it annoys you?

    Also, be the compassion you want to see in the world. If you were having a medical issue or a tough time in your private life would you want someone trying to get you disciplined over not being your best at work? or would you hope they give you a pass based on your career experience and value youv’e provided for them in the past while you sort your stuff out? If you want compassion you have to give compassion, don’t make your workplace more hostile to one another than it has to be.

  52. Zodiac*

    I have severe sleep apnea and my doctor has been trying to get a CPAP machine for 6 weeks. My co-workers make fun of me and one of them left inadvertently an email on the copier where one of my coworkers said “lets take a picture of her sleeping”. Some compassion there. I’m trying to get help. What should I tell my co-workers in the meantime?

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