How to Survive the Night Shift

At some point in their careers, most campus police officers have been required to work into the wee hours of the morning when they would otherwise be asleep. Understanding the effects of the sleep deprivation that usually results will help safety and security professionals adjust and stay awake.

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.

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.

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Conference promo