Surviving the Night Shift

Published: February 9, 2009

Since the first campus police force was officially formed at Yale in 1894, campuses at all levels of educational institutions have seen remarkable changes and challenges. With the increased awareness that crimes also occur on campuses – such as theft, sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, as well as the newer risk of terrorism – campus security has become as attentive to round-the-clock security as traditional law enforcement. It is estimated that in the protective services industry, nearly 50 percent of workers have unconventional schedules.

With campus safety’s expanded role and 24-hour coverage has also come the awareness that late-shift work places special demands on officers. Continuous operations require them to be alert when they would otherwise be asleep and maintain high levels of performance even when feeling fatigued. Officers can incorporate effective shift work and sleep-management practices so they can be alert on the job, whether it is 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.

Most Officers Only Get 6 1/2 Hours of Sleep Per Night
Humans require about eight hours of sound sleep to perform at their best. Most people in law enforcement and related emergency services professions, however, obtain an average of only 6 1/2 hours of rest. During a week’s shift, this amounts to several hours that accumulate as sleep debt. Also, it is not uncommon for officers to work additional hours for other professional commitments, thus keeping them awake even longer.

Being awake at work for 17 hours produces fatigue-level performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .05, and 24 hours without sleep can produce the equivalence of .10 – legal intoxication in all states.

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Relying on officers to monitor their own alertness also has its limitations. As a result, shift workers are more than 40 times as likely to become involved in work, commuter and home accidents than day workers. In addition, as many as 56 percent of shift workers fall asleep on the job per week.

Sleep Debt Has Profound Negative Consequences
Fatigue can have adverse effects on officer performance, gradual and transient at first, and more profound and pervasive after accumulated sleep debt. Performance generally declines from 5 percent to 10 percent on a night shift but can fall by as much as 30 percent with significant sleep deprivation. Vigilance, attention and concentration are most immediately affected, which can reduce alertness in attending to surveillance monitors and visual scanning during routine patrol. Complex planning, reasoning and decision-making are also slower. In urgent situations requiring rapid and precise decisions, the response can become poor.

Testifying in court or student disciplinary hearings, especially under cross-examination, can reveal significant memory deficits and appear to undermine officer credibility.

On the emotional level, frustration and irritability can emerge as fatigue increases. Incidents of excessive force and brutality are related to shift work fatigue. As officers become more tired, they also become more reactive to situations – responding with apprehension, fear and irritability – resulting in using more force in a confrontation than if they were well rested. Shift work can also predispose vulnerable officers to depression due to the body’s desynchronization to night work or lack of light exposure.

Physical performance is also adversely affected. Reflexes and reaction time slow during fatigue. In situations requiring physical action, there may be less coordination. The combination of poor attention and reaction time can also produce a higher level of errors and vehicular accidents. Officers may take more time on tasks and resort to shortcuts on procedures when tired.

Shift Work Stress Can Undermine Morale
During longer periods of time, unless the officer can find effective ways of coping with the stress of shift work, fatigue can undermine morale, create cynicism and stagnation, and contribute to absenteeism and turnover. About 20 percent of people leave night work due to physiological or psychological shift work intolerance.

The effects also spill over into family and social life, with officers feeling out of contact with daytime society or even peers and administration in the department. Finally, prolonged adverse shift work can produce strain resulting in the emergence of more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, apnea, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and other medical conditions. Workers’ compensation claims are also 15-percent higher among shift workers than day workers.

In spite of all these challenges, 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans enjoy and seek out night or shift work. Others enjoy the extended time off between shifts or 12-hour schedules. In any case, continuous operations and shift work are given factors for most people who work in law enforcement and campus security. Their duties and careers can be satisfying and progress quite well with good shift work adjustment practices.

Schedules Should Accommodate the Worker
Most shift work practices involve schedule and work environment adjustment. At home, an officer should focus on improving the environment where he or she sleeps and the family situation. An officer should also implement personal countermeasures for coping more effectively with fatigue. Like any other habit, these accommodations must be regularly practiced to be effective, and some customizing for each person’s lifestyle and physiology may be necessary.

Schedules should be forward rotated (e.g., early, late and night) since this is the same direction as the biological rhythm that needs to be accommodated. It is very difficult to adapt to reverse scheduling.

Although 12-hour shifts are used by many campuses and desired by many officers because of the extra days off, shorter night shifts can be helpful by reducing the time to eight hours.

Duration of shift duty or rotation should be either very short or much longer. A rotation of more than three days begins to introduce the fatigue effects described above. Working two or three nights is usually not enough to reset the biological clock, although the popular four on, four off schedule will still produce fatigue effects by the fourth day.

Alternately, a successful shift schedule might involve being on shift for several months or even a fixed schedule. Some new shift schedules may create “mini-vacations” by providing five to seven days off following 10-14 days on duty. Although these are attractive, especially to younger officers, older officers find it more difficult to recover from the fatigue. After an officer adjusts to night work during a period of two to four weeks (and assuming the schedule is kept while off duty), it is easier to maintain good performance with minimal fatigue. In general, overtime should be minimized whenever possible, and limits should be set on how much overtime an officer can request.

Officer Families Need to Be Prepared
The stress of shift work can also be reduced by better preparing the officers and their families for such duty. Applicants can be given a realistic job preview prior to hiring through orientation to the job and schedule and training on how to adjust to shift work. Spouses should also receive education regarding the demands on family members, the support available and the many methods for shift-proofing the home.

Rest occurs at home, but officers and their families are seldom aware of the importance of discussing the impact of shift work on the family. When an officer is on shift work, the whole family is also on shift work to some degree. Loud machinery cannot be operated, children may not have loud friends over, phones may be turned off, and important chores or family activities must be rescheduled during awake times. In addition, there may be more spousal conflict reported as intimacy suffers and joint social life is disrupted.

To reduce these stresses, the family should discuss the potential problems with shift work and negotiate mutual solutions. Officers should consid
er posting calendars in which on- and off-duty times and sleep schedules are clearly seen, honor scheduled family activities and ensure quality time for family members. In addition, there must be time planned for socializing, home chores and especially sleep.

Sleep is the essential ingredient for both shift adjustment and harmonious home life. The bedroom should be reserved for sleeping or intimacy, not entertainment or work. If the bedroom is close to the street, it may be beneficial to move it to a quieter location in the house. Insulate walls and use opaque curtains to completely block out light. People tend to sleep better at lower temperatures when their body temperature is also dropping, around 68° F to 72° F. In addition to muting the phone or using an answering machine, a white sound machine can help mask ambient noise.

Officer Responsible for His/Her Own Shift Strategy
Regardless of how enlightened the workplace or home may be, it comes down to the officer practicing sound shift management. As noted above, about eight hours of sleep is essential to avoid the adverse effects of fatigue. Even with sleep, shift adjustment will take some time, and extended operations may still tax the officer’s endurance.

As difficult as it is to eat properly on night shift, one should try to maintain a balanced diet, avoid junk food and drink plenty of fluids. Some research suggests that protein-based meals can help alertness when going on duty, while carbohydrates tend to decrease alertness for going off duty. Caffeine in coffee or soft drinks seems to be a healthy way to maintain alertness with few side effects unless overused. Two to four cups of coffee (or their equivalent) will raise maximum awareness, after which excessive use may increase headaches, sweating, restlessness and irritability. Women seem to keep caffeine in their systems longer than men, and they may want to avoid it late in the shift after which they plan to go home to sleep.

Medications can cause disruptions in the sleep cycle or types of sleep, resulting in emotional or physical tiredness on waking. Antidepressants, sleep aids and tranquilizers can all affect the quality of sleep. While alcohol and antihistamines may make one drowsy, they also diminish the quality of sleep. Newer medications such as melatonin and Provigil are promising in helping reset the biological clock, but there have not been long-term studies on possible adverse effects. Herbal preparations, though touted as natural, may have transient effects but are mainly psychological.

In general, four to six hours before going off duty, avoid stimulants such as caffeinated beverages and nicotine. Alcohol should also be avoided before going to bed.

Faced with fatigue and several hours of work, the shift can seem to go on forever unless alertness can be stimulated. Singing, washing the face with cold water, and going for a walk can help increase alertness but usually only briefly if one is tired. Exposure to bright lights before going on duty and working in bright light whenever possible can facilitate adjustment.

Short Naps Only Work for Some People
Napping is appearing in the safety, law enforcement and corrections literature more often, but in many departments, this still violates policy or is not feasible in small departments with few staff. Napping for 10 to 40 minutes before going on duty has been found to delay the onset of fatigue. Less than 10 minutes has little effect, and more than 40 may interfere with normal sleep onset.

For some officers, napping may result in sleep inertia or a period lasting for several minutes after waking in which one is still groggy and lacks clear thinking and coordination. In these cases, napping even on breaks or meal times at work is unadvisable. While napping is an issue, it is unlikely to go away due to its effectiveness, but officers should do it before going on duty and before sleep debt has occurred.

As campus security has evolved through the decades, the need for officers to work nights has also increased. The adverse effects of these shifts can be minimized by using scheduling that is compatible with the biological clock, educating families to shift-proof their homes and lifestyle, and training the officer to adopt effective sleep and shift adjustment skills. Officers can then work with both eyes open.

David X. Swenson Ph.D. is a licensed forensic psychologist in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and associate professor of management at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. He is a consultant and can be reached at

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