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Why shift schedule awareness is critical to police wellness

Being awake for 17-19 hours is the equivalent of having a BAC of .05, and at 24 hours without sleep, you’re cognitively the same as being intoxicated


Article updated on November 28, 2017.

Here's some good news about shift work and police officer safety:

  • Rotating shifts are on their way out – more than 70 percent of agencies now have fixed assignments – a big leap forward in recent years.
  • Researchers have documented what length of shift seems best for your well-being – it’s 10 hours, not eight and not 12.
Police officers working midnights are four times more likely than their day-shift colleagues to show signs of “metabolic syndrome.” (Photo/Felipe Vidal via Flickr)
Police officers working midnights are four times more likely than their day-shift colleagues to show signs of “metabolic syndrome.” (Photo/Felipe Vidal via Flickr)

The bad news:

  • If you work midnights, you’re at special peril.
  • Whatever your shift, heavier workloads brought on by austerity budgets may be threatening you with dire long-term consequences.

These state-of-the-profession updates were reported during a 90-minute national webinar – Healthy Officers Are Safer Officers – sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the National Institute of Justice.

Leading behavioral scientists investigating law enforcement issues outlined what their research says urgently needs to be addressed to improve police officer wellness and performance, and reduce police officer deaths.

Here are highlights of their observations about some of the less-talked about aspects of police officer survival.

Shift Changes in policing 

Studying hundreds of agencies and officers, researchers led by Dr. Karen Amendola of the Police Foundation have found a major change in shift arrangements taking place. The Foundation's latest survey shows “a significant decrease in rotating shifts,” Amendola said, with 72 percent of agencies now operating on fixed tours, compared to 54 percent in 2005.

“Agencies are moving away from traditional eight-hour shifts and trying nine to 13 hours,” said Amendola.

While smaller departments tend to favor eight- and 12-hour stints, larger agencies seem to prefer 10-hour tours – and they may have hit the magic number.

Cops like that shift best, experience much less fatigue (averaging an extra half-hour of sleep per 24-hour period), and work significantly less overtime, Amendola reported.

Officers on duty 12 hours at a crack tended to be “sleepier and less alert while at work,” she said, and eight-hour shifts were associated with five times more overtime than 10-hour shifts and three times more than 12-hour shifts.

Citing potential safety-related fatigue problems, she warned law enforcement agencies to “proceed with caution” about adopting 12-hour tours, and mentioned that the reduced overtime benefits afforded by 10-hour assignments is “major” in an era of shrinking budgets.

Midnight Misery

In general, LEOs are four times more likely than the overall population to sleep less than six hours daily, and that problem and its consequences are particularly evident among cops who work midnights, said Dr. John Violanti, a former New York State trooper who heads an ongoing, extensive study of police wellness at the University of Buffalo.

That level of sleep deprivation is worrisomely close to less than five hours, the point at which people definitely can’t function well, he said.

Also police officers working midnights are four times more likely than their day-shift colleagues to show signs of “metabolic syndrome,” a cluster of symptoms related to a higher incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The disruption of their bodies’ normal circadian pattern seems to open the way to greater risk of health crises such as heart attacks and cancer, Violanti said.

Injuries among police officers working midnights are twice as prevalent as among day workers, Violante added, and those officers tend to be sidelined off duty longer, suggesting their injuries are more severe.

The highest risk of getting hurt appears to be on the first night back after time off, he says. A contributing factor is that “officers burn the candle at both ends,” especially while off duty, returning to work tired and thus more vulnerable to mishaps.

Officers also show significantly more depressive symptoms than the general public, Violanti reported. At least some symptoms of PTSD show up in more than a third of officers, with 10 percent having a “very high rate” of post-traumatic stress indicators, he said. “What’s scary is that we don’t necessarily know who these officers are. They’re buried in among the others.”

Recent research indicates that smaller departments have the highest suicide rate, “the opposite of what you might expect,” said Violanti.

And the number of police officer suicides is increasing. 

\Violanti’s multi-faceted research is summarized here.

Fatigue can Kill cops

“Budget cuts have left lots of problems with fatigue,” declared Washington State University’s Dr. Bryan Vila, a former patrol officer and author of the classic book about his research specialty, "Tired Cops." Overwork because of manpower shortages, larger beats and heavier caseloads, as well as the growing stress of policing, “degrade officers’ capacity to do the job right,” he said. “Overtime can grind down a department to the point it can’t provide the services it needs to.

“Thirty years of research shows we need to do better” in addressing officer-wellness problems. “We can’t afford not to.”

Forty percent of officers are plagued by sleep problems, he said. One in seven are “usually tired or drowsy at the beginning of their shift.” Some 85 percent admit to driving while drowsy. Being awake for 17-19 hours – not uncommon in law enforcement – is the equivalent of having a BAC of .05, and at 24 hours without sleep, you’re cognitively the same as being intoxicated.

“The consequences of fatigue are alarming,” Vila says. “It affects eye coordination, reaction time and accuracy. It impairs the parts of the brain that are needed for thinking clearly, solving problems, making difficult moral choices, dealing with stress and frustration, and handling people. Yet, unfortunately, nearly all cops see fatigue as a routine part of the job.”

Seven Remedies to fight police officer fatigue

What can be done? The panelists offered several suggestions, both for administrators and street troops.

  1. Police departments need to screen police officers for sleep disorders and train supervisors to recognize and respond to red flags. “Officers need to cover each other for signs of fatigue,” Vila suggested. “Research has shown that we are lousy judges of our own fatigue level, but a partner may be better able to tell when we’re pushing the limit."
  2. Regular exercise can help counter dangerous tiredness, “but don’t work out just before you want to sleep,” Vila warns. “Allow at least a couple of hours to cool down.

    And don’t cut into sleep time in order to work out. Olympic athletes are beginning to pay attention to this as a problem.” Better to exercise “just prior to going to work,” Violanti said, as this increases your levels of stress-fighting hormones and keeps you activated for a longer period of time.

    Agencies are urged to explore the cost/benefit of allowing officers to work out on duty time.
  3. As a key element in combating police suicide as well as other health problems, a new “culture of wellness” needs to be instilled in officers, starting in the police academy, Violanti said.

    “We need to understand that cops are human beings and are vulnerable to stress, hard as that may be to accept. The police culture needs to get rid of stigma so officers can feel comfortable in reaching out for help.”
  4. Peer support programs, for which select officers are professionally trained in counseling skills, may help “take care of small problems before they get big,” Violanti suggested. Amendola agreed, proposing “a help line run by peers.”

    Fellow officers can often be more helpful than families and mental health professionals in getting colleagues through crises because of the heightened trust factor, she said. “There is nothing better for a cop than to talk to another cop,” Violanti said.
  5. Professional psychological services should be housed outside departmental facilities, Amendola stressed. This will encourage participation, especially where confidentiality is a concern.
  6. Violanti declared that every officer should have a professional mental health checkup every year, even if no problems are perceived.
  7. Unions can be a hindrance to both psychological and physical exams. “Many oppose annual checkups for fear officers will get fired,” Violanti claimed.  “I know officers who haven’t had a physical in 15 years. Unions and management have to get together with an agreement that officers will not be fired for problems that are surfaced.”

    Vila added: “Once they realize they have to pull in harness together, you can get things done.” It was agreed all around that a department’s support of its officers is critical and is the key to trust in its leadership.

Summarizing the webinar, participant Theron Bowman, chief of police in Arlington, Texas, observed: With budget tightening in today’s law enforcement community, “we’re starting to see increases in sick leave, injuries, litigation, misconduct, substance abuse and suicides. I think that austerity measures done to decrease expenses will have an opposite long-term effect. There is overwhelming evidence that it is time for police professionals to take action [regarding wellness measures that affect officer safety]. We can’t underestimate the value of empirical research. The time to act is now.”

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