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.

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 re
ported 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 consider 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.

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