By Sarah Sharp
There’s one suspended state of consciousness we can’t escape. Drugs, alcohol and other mind-altering substances can warp daytime reality, but eventually we all succumb to the same hormone-induced trance at bedtime. Oh, sweet sleep.
With school back in session, sleep schedules are bound to go amiss, and shift workers must often make do with inconsistent z’s. But perhaps most alarming are the health and safety implications of fatigue for those sworn to protect and to serve.
Blaine police chief Mike Haslip shed light on the importance of well-rested officers, and the department’s approach to health and wellness. The issue of officer fatigue has recently emerged as a subject of international concern.
A study published in August found that about 92 percent of Indian police officers face mild to severe fatigue due to erratic work hours, according to the Times of India. The study, “Research Study on Fatigue in Police Personnel: Causes and Remedies,” was conducted by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD).
North American officers also share in the sleepless nights. A 2011 survey of 4,957 U.S. and Canadian police officers found more than 40 percent screened positive for sleep disorders – twice the 15–20 percent estimated rate of sleep disorders in the general population, according to the National Institute of Justice. Even among those who did not screen positive for a sleep disorder, the researchers found excessive fatigue was widespread.
While Haslip said rare emergencies still require an “all hands on deck, buckle down and get it done effort,” what’s more typical is the department’s expectation that all officers remain alert and focused each minute of their shifts.
“Public safety personnel need access to the right tools to do their job safely,” he said. “Schedules that provide adequate time off for proper rest are one of those tools.”
Over a 24-hour period, Haslip said he strives for a minimum of six hours of “rack time” each night, but those hours might not be all at once. His duties as police chief require working a variety of shifts, from fulfilling his management role during weekdays to coming home and changing socks for a night or weekend patrol shift. “It depends on the needs of the service,” he said.
His outlook on sleep has shifted over the years. Back in the “old days,” he said, rest was not acknowledged as a necessary component of the workplace, just as police officers were not required to wear ballistic vests and firefighters entered burning buildings without breathing apparatus.
“Way back when, as in a generation ago, working stupidly long hours was one way that some of us showed we were committed and hard-working. ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ was one of our mottos. Chalk some of that up to youth, and some of it to lack of education,” Haslip said. “We were kidding ourselves. We did not know how critical adequate sleep is to physical and mental health, to effective performance and to sound decision-making.”
Sue Moore, supervisor of operations for the pulmonary and sleep clinic at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, says it’s not true that some people are biologically blessed with the ability to function optimally on three to four hours of sleep.
“There’s really no scientific proof,” Moore said. “What we know is that the average person needs at least seven to eight hours of sleep. There are special occasions when some people can do well on six hours of sleep, but it’s rare.”
She recommends shift workers – police officers included – keep the same sleep schedule on their days off whenever possible.
“If you don’t, your circadian rhythm gets thrown off. Your body doesn’t know when to sleep,” Moore said. “If you’re consistent, you’re training your body and your mind to fall asleep at the same time every day.”
To reduce the stress of psychologically taxing work that can creep into officers’ home lives, relaxation can ease the transition to sleep. Moore’s remedy for stress includes soaking in a hot bath and drinking chamomile tea, she said.
Dark colored sheets and a soothing shade of paint in the bedroom, such as a light yellow or green, can also create a better environment for sleep. Moore said the effect of experiencing true rest for the first time in years is nothing short of life altering for patients with previous sleep trouble.
“When you get good sleep, you feel like a million dollars,” Moore said. “Your life becomes less chaotic when you get adequate sleep.”
The officer wellness and safety pillar of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing aims to improve officer safety and reduce the chaos exacerbated by inadequate sleep. More than the risk to officer safety posed by criminals, the task force found a larger proportion of officer deaths and injuries resulted from poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, substance abuse and poor overall health. “Yet these causes are often overlooked or given scant attention,” the report states.
The consequences can be dire, sometimes leading to depression and suicide – and ultimately impacting their relationships with loved ones.
“Sleep deprivation affects a person’s ability to be emotionally present and participative in relationships,” Haslip said. “This creates negative stress for officers and their families off-duty, which can feed back negatively to their work.”
As a result, the community also suffers in cases of officer fatigue – even when the responder interacting with the public has followed every other aspect of protocol, Haslip said.
“Experience and dogged professionalism cannot reliably fill the sleep gap created by an over-tired responder, leaving him or her less able to find and implement the best solution to a problem,” he said. “When the problem is routine an error may be only inconvenient, but when a problem suddenly escalates an error can be catastrophic.”
The policing task force’s final report also recommends administrative changes such as reducing work shifts and the implementation of mental health strategies that can diminish the potential for long lasting trauma.
To promote healthy sleep schedules, the Blaine Police Department’s employee schedule provides a minimum of 12 hours off between shifts.