Staff Views
L.E. Forum

Shift Work and Officer Survival

By Thomas J. Aveni

Published Summer 1999

Issue #31, S&W Academy Newsletter

Identifying 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, isn't it?

    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 problem?

    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.

Issues and Answers


    Up to 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.

    There are 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 options.


Here are some issues we'll explore:

  1. "Equal staffing"

  2. "Steady shifts"

  3. Clock rotation

  4. The number of consecutive nights worked

  5. Napping on duty

  6. Scheduling of court appearances

1. Equal Staffing

    Most 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.

2. Steady Shifts

    The 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 City [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. 

3. Clock Rotation

    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. [v]

4. Consecutive Nights Worked

    If 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 opportunities.

5. Napping On Duty

    This 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. 

6. Scheduling Court Appearances

    While it 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.

    Oh, but 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 uncommon.

    In 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.

 Well, don't just sit there, get the ball rolling!



[i] Richard M. Coleman, "Shiftwork Schedulingfor the 1990s," Personnel, (January 1989), p.10.

[ii] "Improving Patrol Productivity, Vol I, Routine Patrol," (U.S. Department of Justice, 1977).

[iii] "SFPD 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.