Working With Narcolepsy
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020 | Last updated: September 2023
Narcolepsy can create challenges to the average workplace routine. Daytime sleepiness can make it hard to sit for long periods at a computer or during meetings. Cataplexy can cause falls or short periods of inattention that lead to mistakes and accidents. However, with the right adjustments, most people with narcolepsy can work.
Work and narcolepsy
You are not required to disclose your narcolepsy to an employer. But if you do not inform your supervisor, your sleepiness may be seen as laziness or lack of motivation.
It is also important to know your rights. Your company may be required to make reasonable accommodations for you under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Reasonable accommodations often cost the employer no money. For instance, you might ask to move your desk to a location near natural light from a window or ask to stand during meetings. However, it is not reasonable to ask to work after 6 p.m. if tasks must be done in the morning.1,2
You may be required to provide a doctor’s note that confirms your workplace needs when you request some accommodations.2
Workplace accommodations for narcolepsy
A wide variety of workplace accommodations can help someone with narcolepsy be a productive team member, such as:2
- Schedule short nap breaks of 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours during a 9-hour day.
- Take a nap at lunch.
- Permission to stand during meetings.
- Permission to get up and walk around when sleepy.
- Move your desk near a window so natural light can help keep you awake.
- Use a wellness room, or new mothers nursing room as a nap space.
- Flexible arrival time, or moving to a morning or afternoon shift to allow for a regular sleep schedule.
- Move less interesting tasks to times when you are most alert.
- Flexible working hours to avoid peak traffic.
- Work from home, if possible
- Not taking “clopening” shifts where you close one night and open the next morning.
- Keep a consistent shift rather than a rotating shift.
You may also need to work with your doctor to change the timing and doses of your narcolepsy medicines to fit your work schedule.1
Explaining yourself to others
It can be a difficult choice to tell coworkers or a supervisor about your narcolepsy. Most people know little to nothing about narcolepsy. This means if you choose to share your diagnosis, you will need to educate them about what narcolepsy is and how it impacts you. Greater understanding can help those around you be supportive during bouts of sleepiness or cataplexy.1
Sleep habits that support work
Sticking to good sleep habits can help many people with narcolepsy stay alert at work. Sleep habits, also called sleep hygiene, may not provide a complete fix for daytime sleepiness but can play an important role in overall narcolepsy treatment. Common suggestions for sleep habits that can improve narcolepsy symptoms include:3
- Set consistent times for going to sleep and waking up to get your body used to a regular routine.
- Remove electronics from the bedroom.
- If you wake in the middle of the night, do not check email or watch TV. Listen to quiet music or read a book or magazine.
- Avoid sedating drugs like some allergy or some depression medicines.
- Eat smaller meals, or avoid carbohydrate-heavy meals, if eating makes you sleepy.
- Use caffeine to stay awake but not after 3 to 4 p.m.
- If you take a stimulant drug, talk to your doctor about how much caffeine is safe.
- Be sure to get enough sleep, especially if being tired triggers your cataplexy.
If you find yourself falling asleep in the afternoon, you may need to change the drugs you take. A short-acting drug for alertness can keep you awake for work, but wear off by bedtime.3