How much does inadequate sleep affect you?
A recent study shows most LEOs are working over 1,000 hours of overtime each year. What are the effects of fatigue, both on and off the job?
By Megan Wells, PoliceOne Contributor
In 1991, The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research listened to testimony from officers who described terrible work schedules, high stress, and overwhelming fatigue as hallmarks of their work environment. The testimony was powerful, but the lack of scientific data to support the officers’ statements meant the Commission was unable to determine the extent of police fatigue.
Scientific data on sleep deprivation within law enforcement has since been collected and evaluated, and the results were dire. A solution still hasn’t been perfected, so the conversation needs to continue.
Police and overtime
Many officers are quick to say yes to double shifts, triple shifts, and second jobs in order to earn extra cash.
The book Principles and Practices of Sleep Medicine addresses officers who have reported working as many as 3,000 hours per year in overtime. These may be outlier cases, but LEOs frequently report working more than 1,000 hours in overtime each year. (For reference, a 40-hour per week job with a four-week vacation totals 1,920 work hours per year.)
Excessive work and poor sleep habits make officers sleep-deprived. The National Sleep Foundation suggests 7 to 9 hours of sleep, but more than half (53 percent) of officers report a nightly average of 6.5 hours of sleep or less.
Facts about sleep deprivation and behavior
One sleep deprivation study found that not sleeping for 17 hours impaired a person's motor skills as much as someone who tests at 0.05 percent blood alcohol content (BAC). Not sleeping for 24 hours is equivalent to a BAC level of 0.10 percent. This level of deprivation impairs speech, balance, coordination and mental judgment.
According to Dr. Jared Heathman, sleep deprivation can lead to significant changes in mood, too. Sleep is required by the brain to effectively store memory, process information and control impulses. Impaired functioning can cause agitation, depression, and poor frustration tolerance.
How sleep affects social skills
Poor sleep habits increase your risk of poor communication because you are agitated or frustrated, which can lead to a decline of healthy relationships.
“From my experience, when I didn't get good night’s sleep I was very short with my wife and kids,” said Dr. Joseph McNamara, a chiropractic neurologist, and firefighter for over 18 years, adding that trivial daily problems made him overly emotional. “Getting my kids off to school on time was a trigger for me. If one of them was moving too slow, I tended to yell at them instead of understanding they are only doing what young kids do.”
Dr. Carolyn Dean, a sleep, and stress management expert says lack of sleep will affect your energy levels, concentration levels, and cognitive functions as well as your relationships and how you interact with others.
“Your communication is apt to break down more easily, you may forget something important and your mood may be lowered,” Dean said. “This can make you less patient and less forgiving of foibles in others.”
Lack of sleep also puts stress on the body and depletes your system of what Dean calls “the anti-stress mood minerals” like magnesium and B1.Taking supplements can help, but pills are no substitute for a good night’s sleep.
PoliceOne contributor Olivia Johnson provides 10 tips on how to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep. A few of her solutions include:
- When your schedule permits, set a specific bedtime and abide by it.
- Eat and drink less in the hours before bedtime.
- Learn to let go of racing thoughts and remember that a good night’s sleep will help you accomplish what you need to do tomorrow.
Take steps to be sure you are getting the sleep you need and be mindful of your emotional state and energy level on the job to help evaluate your communication and decision-making capabilities. Lack of sleep is not a permanent condition, you just need to make a conscious effort to do your sleep due diligence.