In law enforcement, you strive to be a 5-percenter, a symbol of excellence and commitment. But you may also be a 40-percenter. And that ain’t so good.
After surveying 5,296 LEOs in North America, a Harvard Medical School group reports that nearly 40 percent (38.8 percent) of active-duty officers are suffering from sleep abnormalities. These include apnea, insomnia, shift work disorder, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy with temporary paralysis.
Yet sleep disorders in cops often go undiagnosed and largely untreated, according to one of the researchers, Dr. Shantha Rajaratnam. For example, “almost half the individuals diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea [a dangerous condition in which impaired breathing can lead to a heart attack or stroke] do not regularly take treatment,” he says.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that “police officers work some of the most demanding schedules known, which increases their risk of sleep disorders. The public expects officers to perform flawlessly, but unrecognized—and untreated—sleep problems lead to severe disruption of sleep, which significantly reduces an individual’s ability to think clearly and perform well.”
Besides increasing your risks from accidents, injury, and poor judgment calls, sleep loss and disturbance also make you more vulnerable to depression, obesity, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disease, and diabetes.
The average age of officers in the Harvard survey was 38; 77 percent were men. Among the diagnosed disorders, insomnia was most common, followed by shift work problems, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy (falling asleep uncontrollably).
Given the survey’s unsettling findings, Rajaratnam recommends that widespread “sleep disorder screening and treatment programs should be implemented” in the policing community.
Another alarm sounds about tired cops
The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin has added its voice to the growing concern about police fatigue, with an article in its August issue characterizing the problem as “an accident waiting to happen.”
Among other things, the author, Spcl. Agt. Dennis Lindsey, a senior instructor at the DEA Academy and an international fellow at the Australian Institute of Police Management, cites a disturbing study that itemizes 9 workplace performance qualities susceptible to fatigue, all of them critical in policing. When fatigued, the study found, you experience a significantly lessened ability to:
1. comprehend complex situations that require processing a substantial amount of data within a short time frame;
2. manage events and improve strategies;
3. perform risk assessment and accurately predict consequences;
4. be innovative;
5. take personal interest in the outcome of action;
6. control your mood and behavior;
7. recollect the timing of events;
8. monitor your personal performance; and
9. communicate effectively.
“When [an officer] is deprived of sleep, actual changes occur in the brain that cannot be overcome with willpower, caffeine, or nicotine,” Lindsey writes. “The decline in vigilance, judgment, and safety in relation to the increase in hours on the job cannot be trivialized.
“In the last 25 years, the job of enforcing the law has become increasingly complex from a cognitive perspective. [P]olicing the community is creating tasks that require much higher levels of attentiveness than in the past.”
Yet, “modern law enforcement practices have developed well-entrenched unwritten rules that treat sleep in utmost disregard and disdain. Agencies often encourage and reward workaholics,” and, through their staffing and shift practices, virtually mandate fatigue.
“Agencies must acknowledge this problem to improve working conditions for their personnel and to protect them from the scientifically documented consequences that fatigue can cause.”
Among the research highlights Lindsey reports are these:
• After 20 hours of wakefulness, neurobehavioral functions are impaired equivalent to that of a drunk with a BAC of 0.10. Noticeable impairment sets in well before that;
• Even moderate levels of sleepiness “can substantially impair the ability to drive safely,” even before you actually fall asleep at the wheel;
• The ability to maintain speed and road position on a driving simulator is significantly reduced when the normal awake period is prolonged by just 3 hours;
• “After 24 hours of sustained wakefulness, the brain’s metabolic activity can decrease by up to 65 percent in total and by up to 11 percent in specific areas of the brain, particularly those that play a role in judgment, attention, and visual functions;”
• As people, including officers, “try to fight through periods of fatigue, the human body, in an effort to rest, goes into microsleeps” where you literally fall asleep “anywhere from 2 to 10 seconds at a time. It is difficult to predict when a person, once fatigued, might slip into a microsleep.”
• As little as 2 hours of sleep loss on just one occasion “can result in degraded reaction time, cognitive functioning, memory, mood, and alertness;”
• “Fatigue is 4 times more likely to cause workplace impairment than alcohol and other drugs.” Ironically, chemical abuse normally is “addressed immediately by management. However, the lack of sleep, probably the most common condition adversely affecting personnel performance, often is ignored.”
“Fatigue is a serious, challenging problem that requires informed, forward-thinking managers to take action sooner rather than later,” Lindsey insists.
• His recommendations include:
1. POLICY REVIEW. Administrators should review all “policies, procedures, and practices that affect shift scheduling, overtime, rotation, the number of work hours allowed, and the way the organization deals with overly tired employees.”
2. TRAINING. Administrators should review “recruit, supervisor in-service, and roll-call training…to determine if personnel receive adequate information about the importance of good sleep habits, the hazards associated with fatigue and shift work, and strategies for managing them.” Personnel should be “taught to view fatigue as a safety issue.”
3. WORK/REST RULES. Agencies should consider “several different work/rest rules. The most common policy is the 16/8 formula. For every 16 hours of work, departments must provide 8 hours of rest time. If resources are limited, managers may have to choose between using volunteers/reserves, implementing mutual aid agreements, or declaring an emergency and breaking the work/rest policy. Any policy must include flexibility.”
4. OFFICER COMPLIANCE. “Officers should not consider vacations just as missed days of work. They should turn off their cell phones and advise courts of scheduled leave. They always should take the time off that their departments provide and use it, remembering that no one is irreplaceable.”
Lindsey warns: “Law enforcement fatigue and sleep deprivation…are becoming serious political and legal liabilities for police managers…. Exhaustion due to shift work, voluntary and mandatory overtime assignments, seemingly endless hours waiting to testify in court, physical and emotional demands of dealing with the public, and management expectations of doing more with less, combined with family responsibilities, put the modern law enforcement professional at serious emotional and physical risk….
“Police work is [a] profession in which we would want all practitioners to have adequate and healthful sleep to perform their duties at peak levels. Not only is fatigue associated with individual misery, but it also can lead to counterproductive behavior. It is well known that impulsiveness, aggression, irritability, and angry outbursts are associated with sleep deprivation.
“It is totally reprehensible that the cops we expect to protect us, come to our aid, and respond to our needs when victimized should be allowed to have the worst fatigue and sleep conditions of any profession in our society.”
For Dennis Lindsey’s full article, titled “Police Fatigue,” click here.
To read our previous reports on police fatigue, search the archives of Force Science News at: www.forcesciencenews.com.
[Thanks to Julie Van Dielen of In the Line of Duty and to Gary Klugiewicz, national advisory board member of the Force Science Research Center, for tips that led to the development of this transmission.]