Fatigue in the Force
As new research reveals that the effects of fatigue are as bad as being drunk, police are reviewing policies around tiredness in the workplace.We look at the research and talk to police shift workers.
There’s an army of academics worldwide involved in researching what most of us already know – if you go without sleep, you will become tired – but now they are also telling us that sleep deprivation is comparable to excessive drinking and can result in impaired speech, co-ordination and mental judgment.
While frontline police officers and other police employees who do shift work are well aware of the difficulties of getting enough quality shut-eye, it appears that any breaks in our circadian cycle can be harmful and the older we get the less able we are to cope.
That’s a problem for an aging police force coupled with increased demand for shift work.
Lack of sleep is not just inconvenient; it can create a vicious cycle of fatigue, which most people experience at some time in their lives, and when that cycle turns into an on-going battle between you and the need to sleep, problems arise.
In law enforcement the consequences can be severe.
The experts tell us that enduring the “cycle of fatigue” for long periods will almost certainly affect our ability to do our jobs effectively.
Medical science has even come up with a name for the problem – “shift work sleep disorder”, which results in either excessive sleepiness or insomnia in some people.
The concern in the case of Police is that officers may end up impaired to the point that they are no longer able to protect others, or themselves.
The academics also say that stress and fatigue from lack of sleep can lead to anxiety, depression and, in severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms of which include not only the inability to sleep, but nightmares, feelings of guilt and a failure to be intimate.
A Monash University study, published last year in the journal of the American Medical Association, found that a high incidence of sleep disorders among police in the US and Canada led to falling asleep while driving and uncontrollable anger when dealing with suspects.
The study of 5000 officers over a two-year period suggested that sleep disorders not only affected a worker’s alertness and mood, but were linked to serious health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Another study in the US by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), using 275 serving police officers, found that four out of eight officers involved in on-the-job accidents and injuries were impaired because of fatigue; they had poor eye-hand co-ordination and some fell asleep while driving.
The research also concluded that fatigued officers have a higher likelihood of dying in the line of duty.
It’s enough to make you not want to come out from under the covers at all.
A workplace safety issue
There are no comparable studies of New Zealand Police, but Police National Headquarters is currently considering a draft policy around managing fatigue associated with shift work – because that is one workplace factor that there is no getting away from in the police force.
Police Health and Safety Advisor Don Smart says that 20 years ago, fatigue was considered an industrial issue, not a safety issue, but in 2002 labour legislation was amended to categorise fatigue as a workplace hazard.
As such, he says, it has to be managed like any other workplace hazard.
Obviously, it’s a lot more difficult to quantify fatigue than, for example, noise or air pollution.
The other factor that makes managing fatigue a special case is that responsibility is shared between the employer and the employee.
Mr Smart says Police need to develop shift patterns that are as user friendly as possible, allowing as many “sleep opportunities” as possible, and employees must to take advantage of those opportunities and try to maintain fitness and good health.
It can be a bit of a hidden problem – employees don’t like to admit to not being able to cope with their working conditions, and employers don’t want to admit that it’s happening in their workplace.
However, Mr Smart says it’s a shared obligation. “Employees must let a supervisor know if they are tired and supervisors must carry out a risk assessment, including perhaps not allowing that person to drive or replacing them on the shift,” he says.
He acknowledges that it is a “bit of juggling act” and that it can be frustrating for those who manage the rosters.
However, to put that in perspective, he says, the one thing we know for certain about fatigue is that it causes accidents and errors of judgment.
He points out that the industrial accidents at Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez have all been linked to employee fatigue.
Education is also important, and Mr Smart says the information recruits receive around shift work and sleep management should be reinforced throughout their careers.
Code of silence
The NIJ report on sleep noted that officers tended to have a code of silence about the stress of police work.
“For most officers, the work ethic and culture of law enforcement appears to accept fatigue as part of the job,” it reported.
“Additionally, managers do not always see how overtime causes work-related injuries and accidents.
And many police are willing to risk their health because overtime provides additional income.”
Some police forces overseas have started working with sleep researchers to devise “fatigue management” systems with the onus on employers to make sure their shift workers are getting enough sleep.
This can even extend to visiting workers’ homes to make sure they have blackout curtains in their bedrooms.
That might be taking the nanny state concept a bit too far for Kiwi sensibilities, but employers are increasingly recognising that supporting a healthy workforce has benefits in the work place.
Writing in the Western Australian Police Union magazine Police News, health and safety expert Griffin Thomas says it would be a good idea to give officers working night shifts an extended break, perhaps an extra 15 minutes, for a power nap.
Although taking naps breaches many police force rules, Mr Griffin says it has been shown to increase wakefulness, cognitive function, focus and alertness.
He agrees that there should be more training and knowledge about fatigue among workers and notes two desirable options that could assist staff: having officers live close to their workplace; and a roster system that reflects the needs of every worker.
Coping with shift work
In the absence of the perfect roster and living next door to the station, there are other strategies staff can use to cope with shift work.
According to Australian sleep researcher Professor Drew Dawson, it helps if you can trick your body into thinking that it is sleeping at night.
His tips for a good snooze are:
• If possible, choose a room that is away from traffic and neighbourhood noise. Try to keep it at a comfortable temperature. Unplug the landline, switch off your cellphone and ask the family to keep the noise down.
• Use blackout curtains or heavy drapes to block out light.
• Learn a relaxation technique, such as muscle relaxation or quiet breathing before you go to bed.
• Develop a bedtime routine, such as always having a shower, reading, or listening to music before going to sleep.
• If you can’t go to sleep, don’t panic, says Professor Dawson. Do something you find relaxing, then return to bed when you feel ready.
• If you live in a big household, Professor Dawson suggests you tape a copy of your roster to the fridge or a wall so everyone can see when you will be home, but asleep, and when you will be available to join in family or household activities.
Professor Dawson’s other advice for dealing with tiredness on the job is this: recognise your limitations and ask for help if you are not feeling good.
|What is your circadian rhythm?|
Circadian rhythm is the beat that keeps us in tune with not only day and night (light and dark), but the sleeping and waking cycle of all living organisms.
Biologically, the cycle is said be important in regulating internal metabolic processes, such as cell, tissue and other body functions. It affects body temperature, heart rate and metabolic rate.
We mess with our circadian cycle when we travel long distances (such as when we are flying), and when we don’t get enough sleep at the right time of day.
Essentially, we are the victims of our hormones and a biological clock that doesn’t adapt easily to shift work.
Add in any other factors, such as health problems, financial stress or issues at home, and the stage is set for a full-blown sleeping disorder to set in.
The stealth weapon in the war on tiredness
If it’s good enough for Nasa pilots, it may be good enough for the Kiwi copper.
And it doesn’t need any hi-tech equipment or training or budgeting.
The power nap is a scientifically proven method for dealing with fatigue.
Nasa found that when pilots had planned rest periods on long flights, their performance increased by 34 per cent and their alertness by 54 per cent.
A Harvard study for the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States showed that midday snoozes reversed “information overload” and, in some cases, could boost performance to an individual’s top level.
The institute concluded: “We should stop feeling guilty about taking that power nap at work.”
Sleeping on the job is still frowned upon in most organisations, but United States website PoliceOne.com reports that the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Redwood, California, has set up two sites, equipped with beds, where its deputies can sleep between shifts.
The website says some law enforcement agencies are beginning to recognise the importance of monitoring and controlling fatigue.
It suggests that power naps should be considered to increase the alertness and safety of police officers.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a power nap of about 30 minutes is most effective.
Any more time, and the body enters into its usual sleep cycle.
People who regularly take power naps know what duration works best for them.
Sleep sensors and sleep timers available on mobile devices allow power nappers to sleep for exactly as long as they want.
If regulated snoozing on the job was permitted it could lead to better performance by officers, according to US researcher Tom Aveni, of the
Force Science Research Centre at Minnesota State University.
“Napping is usually seen as being a dereliction of duty, but progressive agencies really should encourage it,” he says.
“It’s a healthy means of fighting fatigue, and a short nap can work wonders in increasing alertness and judgment.”