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January 23, 2001
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Typically, law enforcement officers work shifts, unless they are top administrators—or really lucky. For everyone else, a way to balance work and personal lives must be found. This task is not always easy when an officer is bright-eyed at the time that the rest of the world is slumbering. Compounding the problem is the toll that adjusting to different sleep schedules takes on the body. The price that humans pay for an irregular sleep pattern tends to increase with age, but it can wreak havoc at any phase of life.

Law enforcement work schedules have long been a subject for debate. Different agencies use various tour schedules, depending on need and tradition, so every LEO has different challenges in this area. However, the general problem with shift work comes down to the same issues for everyone: stress and fatigue. Too much stress and fatigue, of course, can create additional problems both on and off the job. These problems are directly related to several factors, which vary for every department and individual. The length of each tour, how many tours are worked before a day off, how many days off occur on weekends, the amount of overtime worked, the amount of rest taken between tours, the amount of rest taken during the shift, and whether the schedule is fixed or rotates. The challenges for many LEOs come because, even if the schedule is optimal, with set days off, including some weekends, and not too much overtime required, there are always a million things that can interrupt the pattern. Unexpected overtime because of an emergency situation, or an officer who usually works nights having to appear in court during the day are just two examples. In addition, more stress can be added to an officer’s life when switching frequently from a day to a night schedule because of separation from family and friends. Every officer is familiar with the heart-wrenching pangs brought on by having to miss an important event with a spouse, a child’s ball game or parents’ anniversary celebration. These social stresses are harmful not just to personal relationships, but to overall health as well. General health can suffer simply because working at night makes it difficult to get enough sleep. Health conditions such as heart disease or digestive disorders can also be aggravated by shiftwork, and those who typically work a night schedule are often fatigued and sleepy. Unfortunately, the sleep officers enjoy following a night tour generally is shorter and less refreshing or satisfying than the sleep that is had during normal nighttime hours. The brain and body functions slow down at night and during early morning hours. The combination of sleep loss and working at a time that is physically a low point can cause excessive fatigue and sleepiness, making it more difficult to perform at an optimal level and increasing the potential for accidents—a risk to both the LEO and the public. However, exercise can be a valuable tool to help wake up and get ready for work. Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk, a jog, bike ride or swim, can activate the body and signal that it’s time to awaken. Surprisingly, most LEOs who work permanent night shifts never really get used to the schedule—there are many nights when they feel tired and sleepy. Then fatigue kicks in on days off, when they try to walk in step with the rest of the world by staying awake during daylight hours, never completely allowing their sleep and body rhythms to adapt to being awake at night. They also sleep less during the day, which means that they do not recover from fatigue, which can build up to unsafe levels over the course of several days.

Short of getting a promotion and being offered straight day tours, there are some things that officers can do to mitigate the problems brought on by shiftwork. The first is to find the optimum time for sleep following a night tour. The “right” time for sleep will vary for each individual, but there are some constants. Most people have a natural tendency to be sleepy in the mid-afternoon, so two sleep periods—one immediately following the shift, and one in mid-afternoon—can provide satisfying sleep. Of course, the necessary sleep can be fulfilled in one sleep period for some people. Keep in mind that “rest” is not the same as “sleep.” The brain requires sleep. Without it, sleepiness will set in during work hours—an inconvenience at best, a hazard at worst. However, rest without sleep is still beneficial for body and muscle recovery. A minimum of seven hours in bed—even if some of that time is devoted to rest, rather than sleep—is important. Most people require a minimum of six hours of sleep, but six hours are usually not enough to feel refreshed and at their best. Everyone is different, but the additional challenges of working nights can create a need for even more sleep. Naps can be valuable during the afternoon or evening to help fight sleepiness during the night; however, they cannot replace regular sleep. It is important that enough time is taken after a nap to allow for drowsiness to wear off before reporting to work. These are several steps that officers can take to get the most out of regular sleep:

 --Avoid heavy food and alcohol. Eating heavy, greasy foods can cause stomach upset and disturb your sleep. A light snack before bed shouldn’t create problems. Drinking alcohol can create a sleepy feeling, but can wake you up within an hour or two, so avoid consuming alcoholic beverages in the hour or two before sleep.

--Limit caffeine. Caffeine intake should be confined to before work or early in the shift. While it can increase alertness, it can also interfere with proper sleep if ingested later in the shift and closer to bedtime. Too much caffeine at the wrong time can make it harder to fall asleep, and make sleep lighter and less satisfying.

--Reduce outside noise. Turn the ringer on the telephone to “off” and disconnect the doorbell. Make sure that noisy home activity, such as vacuuming, running the washing machine and children’s play time, is reserved for times other than when you are sleeping. The bedroom should be in the quietest place in the house, away from outside noise as well as from the kitchen and the bathroom. Noise penetration can be limited by using insulation and heavy curtains in the bedroom.

--Maintain a regular sleep routine. Always sleep in the same place, and keep the room dark. Use the bed for its intended purpose—in other words, don’t eat, drink, watch TV, pay bills or argue with your spouse there. Make sure the mattress is appropriate for your needs and comfortable. Follow your usual bedtime routine every time you go to sleep: wash up, brush your teeth, etc., so that your body knows it’s time for sleep.

--Relax before bed. Sleep will come more easily if you are able to relax and get rid of work stress beforehand. Although many LEOs are tempted to unwind through the time-honored custom of “choir practice,” alcohol consumption can have adverse effects on sleep, as noted above. Instead, try some relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, prayer, reading or taking a bath. One effective relaxation approach is to lie down or sit in a comfortable chair and slowly tense each muscle group in your body one at a time, then slowly allow them to relax. Breathe deeply and go slowly, paying attention to how your face, neck, shoulders, back, stomach, arms, legs and feet feel. Muscle tension will drain away, along with the day’s stresses.

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