Beyond their scheduled shifts, officers may work overtime on cases, court appearances, or special assignments. "Roughly 40 percent of the nation's 861,000 police officers work more than 12 hours a day -- and a similar proportion suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia or excessive sleepiness" (APA.org). Sleep disorders and fatigue affect moods, cognitive abilities, physical reflexes, social interactions, and immune systems. That is bad for performing routine functions like driving and high-level decision making, "especially when officers must make decisions about whether to use deadly force -- often in ambiguous, fast-paced, high-risk situations" (APA.org).
Length of Shift
Traditionally, police were scheduled to work five 8-hour shifts per week. Many departments have experimented with four 10-hour shifts or even three 12-hour shifts.
Karen Amendola and her colleagues at the Police Foundation conducted a study of 275 officers working various lengths of shifts over six months. The officers were randomly assigned to work 8-, 10-, or 12-hour shifts. It turned out that officers working 10-hour shifts tended to get more sleep than those working 8-hour shifts--an average of 30 minutes more per night (NIJ.gov). Those working 10-hour shifts worked the least amount of overtime and also reported having a "higher quality of work life than those on 8-hour shifts" (NIJ.gov).
In contrast, "officers working the 12-hour shifts reported greater levels of sleepiness and lower levels of alertness at work" (NIJ.gov). They worked 3 times as much overtime as those on 10-hour shifts, but less than those working 8-hour shifts.
From limited data, the 12-hour shift seems to be the least conducive to optimum police effectiveness on the job while 10-hour shifts hold possible benefits over the traditional 8-hour system. More research is needed.
Time of Day
Let's compare working a night shift to a more traditional day/evening shift. We may all have 24 hours in a day, but people who work a night shift tend to get less sleep than those who work other schedules. They get stuck between living a nocturnal existence in which they sleep during the day and participating in social circles that gather during the day. Many function on less than four hours of sleep daily. "This could lead to individual health problems, as well as poor work performance" (Jimston Journal).
Even if they get ample sleep, they still face a difficult battle. "People who work the night shift must combat their bodies' natural rest period while trying to remain alert and high functioning" (APA.org). Your body is designed to slow down and cool off at night--not what you want when responding to an emergency call.
Officers may adopt bad eating and drinking habits in an effort to boost their energy levels, but this leads to other health problems.
Alternative Work Patterns
There are three ways that shift work tends to be assigned: dedicated (permanent) shifts; slow rotation; and rapid rotation (Jimston Journal).
Dedicated Shifts: Set work hours make it easier for departments to schedule officers and for officers to adjust their habits to their work hours. Individuals at least have the opportunity to physically adjust to their schedules. However, night shift workers are still less likely to get a full seven to eight hours of sleep. Problems of sleep loss and fatigue are exacerbated when the assigned shift is a 12 hour, overnight shift.
Slow Rotation: Some departments choose to share the burdens and opportunities of working various shifts across the workforce. They may switch shifts slowly over time. It is best for the health of workers that they not have to "change shifts for at least 4-5 weeks at a time. This allows for minimal disruption of the circadian cycle" (Jimston Journal).
Rapid Rotation: Within as little as one week, police may be required to change from afternoon to day to night shift. This is the most disruptive of all patterns, giving individuals no chance to adjust their biological clocks to a set of wake/sleep hours. Animal experiments have shown that rapid rotation left circadian rhythms undetectable. "Body temperature and blood chemistry of these animals were in a constant state of flux" (Jimston Journal).
It is imperative that departments use either dedicated shifts or a slow rotation. "Research has found that people deprived of normal sleeping patterns can actually fall into microsleep for a few seconds and be unaware that they aren't performing the task before them" (Jimston Journal).
Even if we go with dedicated, 10-hour shifts, some officers must be assigned to the night shift. Next week, I will look into ways to adjust your biological clock and avoid the sleep and health issues often associated with working the night shift.
- Pearsall, Beth, "Sleep Disorders, Work Shifts and Officer Wellness," National Institute of Justice, NIJ.gov, 06/2012.
- Price, Michael, "The Risks of Night Work," American Psychological Association, APA.org, 01/2011.
- Violanti, John M., "Shift Work may be Hazardous to Your Health," Jimston Journal, (accessed 12-26-2012)