By Thomas J. Aveni
Published Summer 1999
Issue #31, S&W
the Significance of the Problem
How many of you have been
able to avoid working rotating shifts for all or most of your career? If
you have served as a law enforcement officer, probably few among you
have escaped this experience. I would also suspect that few of you
actually enjoy working rotating shifts, and that you spend most of your
career merely attempting to cope with this unnatural lifestyle.
Well, there are things they
didn't teach you at the police academy about shift work, though they
certainly should have. It's not only an integral part of policing, it's
a surreptitious component of diminished job performance. As such, there
are many ways in which officer safety might well be affected by this
transient work regimen.
What is "shift work?" It is
commonly defined as the, "regular (i.e., non-overtime) employment
outside the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. working interval." Its origin is generally
traced back to about 1860. However, the first workers to be initiated to
this routine weren't policemen, or even fireman, but bakers.
Industrialization and global warfare brought shift work into the
mainstream. In fact, estimates are that more than 25% of all workers in
the U.S. and Europe are now shift workers. Studies into the effects of
shift work on the human body began in 1927, though most of the body of
accumulated study is of post-WWII origin. This article will look almost
exclusively at research dealing with the subset of shift-workers most
adversely affected, "rotating shift" workers.
Some people attempt to
compare "shift-lag" with "jet-lag", but do so incorrectly. The
sleep-related symptoms of jet-lag are transient. The persistent exposure
to shift-lag over years includes sleep-related disorders, as well as
gastrointestinal abnormalities and increased risk of cardiovascular
disease. So, you want some good news? Well, I'm still looking for good
news. While I'm looking, here's another rather sad tidbit; your ability
to adjust to shift work deteriorates with age. In fact, studies are
showing that disease and "complaint incidences" increase sharply with
the age of shift workers. Now, that's something to look forward to,
I'm sure most of you,
perhaps out of recognized necessity, have done some research into
shift-lag. In which you've no doubt stumbled across the fact that our
bodies have an internal biological clock, or "circadian rhythm." This
internal clockwork regulates all bodily functions within a 25-hour
periodicity. "Chronobiology" is the study of the effects of time on
living organisms. Recent studies into circadian rhythm suggest that body
temperature, (maximum) urine production and blood steroids reach high
and low levels according to times in this cycle. The most salient issue
is that the circadian system is unable to adjust instantaneously to
changes in routine, as work schedules often require. So, in effect,
sleep becomes a major preoccupation amongst shift workers.
However, try as they might
to avoid it, most shift workers develop "sleep debt." Studies in the
U.S. and Europe indicate that shift workers get seven hours or less
sleep per week than their day-working counterparts. Studies show that
those working rotating shifts average only 5.5 hours of sleep when
working night hours. Sometimes, the aggregate loss is partially recouped
on days off. Until this compensation occurs, if it does at all, the mood
and performance of the shift worker is routinely affected.
But, how serious is the
The cumulative effect of
sleep debt is significant in two respects. As you might have expected,
sleep deprived individuals don't perform as well as well rested ones,
particularly in monotonous tasks, such as driving a car. How serious is
this consideration? Well, for example, limiting one night's sleep to
three hours results in the same level of performance impairment as does
ingesting the "legal limit" of alcohol. Secondly, sleep deprivation
studies have shown an additional impairment upon job performance through
the deterioration of the worker's motivation and attitude. Absenteeism,
tardiness and carelessness are common to irritable shift workers, and
these issues might outweigh the direct influences of sleep deprivation
upon performance level.
Regulatory agencies, such
as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) have attributed many serious human errors to
sleep deprivation. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters
have been attributed (in part) to fatigued shift workers. Scores of
railroad accidents, and countless highway accidents have been attributed
to inadequate sleep. Even numerous air and marine accidents (such as the
Exxon Valdez disaster) have been attributed to inadequate sleep. The
identified "vulnerability window" for most sleep-related accidents is
between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Turning our attention back
towards the forgotten police shift worker, sleep deprivation must be
considered a serious component of another potential killer; job stress.
The cumulative effect of sleep deprivation upon the shift-working
policeman appears to aggravate job stress, and/or his ability to cope
with it. Even more troubling is the prospect that the synergy of job
stress and chronic sleep indebtedness contributes mightily to a
diminished life expectancy. In the U.S., non-police males have a
life-expectancy of 73 years. Policemen in the U.S. have a life
expectancy of 53-66 years, depending on which research one decides to
embrace. In addition, police submit workmen's
compensation claims six times higher than the rate of other employees,
and commit suicide two to six times the national average. Hey, and
that's just death and injury from "natural", "accidental" and
self-inflicted causes! Add the fact that 2/3's of U.S. policemen slain
feloniously are slain during hours we generally associate with darkness,
and we have yet another concern for our embattled, shift working officer
- staying alert enough to prevail when attacked.
this point, the discussion has been limited to the possibility of
impaired performance from shift working officers. However, the depth of
this issue goes well beyond this, to the extent that it might be
surprising to some. At a casual glance, shift work problems might seem
confined to officer lethargy and morale problems. One overlooked issue
is that of officer isolation, isolation from family and non-police
friends. Such social isolation might contribute to the perception that
officers are segregated from the rest of society. In fact, some have
suggested that this isolation contributes to the "blue wall" and "code
of silence" perceptions that the public may already have of the police.
Some have even suggested that this isolation from the community, perhaps
combined with the short-tempered irritability common to shift workers,
also contributes to a greater frequency of excessive force complaints.
of course two dynamic issues here, both working at odds against each
other. Police administrators are perhaps doing their best to maximize
resources that are often dwindling. However, in attempting to squeeze
more coverage from their personnel, they may actually be contributing to
problems that exacerbate personnel shortages. If we know that officers
working rotating shifts have greater health related problems, are
lethargic on duty, suffer from low morale, pose greater occupational
safety problems, etc., isn't this dynamic working against the efficient
use of personnel? The private sector toll attributed to the reduction of
productivity, alertness and safety associated with shift work has been
estimated at $70 billion per year.[i]
Naturally, agencies must provide service on a 24-hour schedule, and
there is a limit to just how flexibly personnel might be deployed.
However, there are options that can be explored, and some that might be
implemented. Each agency will have to determine to what extent they
might find themselves constrained from implementing some of these
Here are some
issues we'll explore:
The number of consecutive
Napping on duty
Scheduling of court
agencies that have implemented a regimen of rotating shifts do so with
an equal number of personnel assigned to each of the rotating units of
personnel. This is problematic for several reasons, not the least of
which is squandered resources. A Justice Department study[ii]
suggests that in a "typical city" only 22% of the calls for service
occur between the hours of midnight and 8:00 a.m., while 45% of the
calls received were from 4:00 pm and midnight, and 33% occurred during
the 8x4 dayshift. Equal staffing presents a problem in terms of resource
allocation, and it's systemic to the rotating shift concept. The
solution? See "Steady Shifts" below.
alternative to the equal staffing approach is sometimes called "workload
scheduling." As the name implies, the demand for service is matched
with personnel deployment. The most readily apparent benefits are
increases in directed patrol, and diminished response times. There is
also evidence that suggests that the quality of work is enhanced when
personnel are deployed in such a manner to diminish work overload.
Studies in San Francisco
[iii] and New York
[iv] have illustrated
money savings and productivity increases resulting from steady shifts
and workload scheduling. The New York City study noted a 39% reduction
in absenteeism (as compared to the agency average). However, since this
article is about the debilitating effects of shift work, we mustn't
overlook the fringe benefit.
Sometimes, even small change can offer significant advantage. Nowhere is
this more apparent than in the area of "shift clock rotation." Having
worked both "with the clock" (whereas your shifts rotate with clock
rotation, forward) and also having worked for an agency that rotated
"against the clock," I can attest to the fact that rotation with the
clock is easier for the officer to adjust to. However, since most
administrators will want harder evidence than one man's testimonial,
consider research done by Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard University.
While studying Philadelphia Police Department he advised them to alter
their shift rotation. Philadelphia began the "biological clock rotation"
of days-to-afternoons, afternoons-to-midnights, and midnights-to-days.
The results? A 40% decrease in the ratio of patrol car accidents, and a
25% decrease in the number of reports of officers sleeping on duty.
Consecutive Nights Worked
employees must work rotating shifts, there are recommended guidelines to
follow. In general, weekly tours of shift work should be limited to 40
hours, in a 4 to 5 day work-week. Overtime should be prohibited unless
required by unforeseen emergencies. This might be seen as punitive to
the officer who relies on overtime to supplement his/her income. It is
for this reason that personnel assigned to work rotating shifts be paid
a shift premium. Generally, most agencies already pay a small premium,
though it is generally too small to serve as an inducement for most
officers to want to voluntarily forego access to paid overtime
Napping On Duty
suggestion is certain to cause a stir, but given what we know about the
occupational dangers associated with working shift work, it is quite
logical to consider all alternatives. If an agency is committed to
"equal staffing," and as a result has what amounts to some over staffing
on the midnight watch, allocating the time and area for short (20-30
minute) naps is desirable. Researchers have found that short naps
increase alertness and judgment in quantifiable, significant degrees.
The value of increased alertness and judgment in policing needn't be
oversold here, as it is universally accepted. Providing an "approved
area" for napping would serve several purposes. It allows the
administration to dictate where and when naps may be taken so that there
isn't a perception that officers might be sleeping anywhere in their
assigned areas. In other words, there is some regulation in regard to
where and how much an officer can sleep when on duty. In addition, there
might otherwise be concern about officer safety if officers were merely
allowed to sleep in their vehicles.
Scheduling Court Appearances
may not always be possible to schedule court appearances to coincide
with an officers work schedule, every reasonable effort should be made
in this area. Ask any officer about the effect of having to testify
after working a midnight shift, and you're likely to get unanimous
feedback about how unpopular the task is. And how well is he/she likely
to perform in court after working the "dog-watch?" Do you really expect
officers to effectively match wits with even the dullest public defender
after sitting behind the wheel of a patrol car all night? Ideally, court
appearances should be scheduled for the officers day-tour. Scheduling
court appearances for the officers days off is not only debilitating to
his morale, but it also denies the officer the much needed "battery
recharge" that a respite from duty provides.
there's one other thing related to scheduling. Let's also consider
whether it's counterproductive to holdover officers from the midnight
watch for firearms training. Having been qualified, and having qualified
other officers after working a midnight tour, I can attest to this being
an exercise in foolishness. Performance impairments of 5-10% are not
summary, there's much to be done! Shift-work is a significant problem,
with a myriad of troublesome implications. The only way we'll see
significant inroads made in dealing with this issue is if we are willing
to break away from many indefensible traditions. Even a series of small
changes may add up to significant results.
just sit there, get the ball rolling!
[i] Richard M.
Coleman, "Shiftwork Schedulingfor the 1990s," Personnel,
(January 1989), p.10.
Patrol Productivity, Vol I, Routine Patrol," (U.S. Department of
Redeploys Its Troops With Computerized Help," Law Enforcement
News, April 30, 1988.
[iv] Colleen A.
Cosgrove and Jerome E. McElroy, "The fixed Tour Experiment in
the 115th Precinct.: Its Effects on Police officer
Stress, Community perceptions, and Precinct Management,"
Executive Summary, (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 1986.)
[v] "Sweet Dreams,"
Personnel, (February 1990), p.7.
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.