Effective shift work management is one of the keys to success in a law enforcement career. You can manage shift work through proper nutrition, exercise, use of effective sleep principles–such as creating a bedroom that promotes sleep–and becoming an expert stress manager.
Shift work is a fact of life in law enforcement agencies. Though organizational changes can be made to reduce the number and severity of adverse effects of 24-hour operations, police officers will always be doing shift work. So, we need to deal with reality in an intelligent way. We know the list is long and varied relating shift work to its associated problems.
Our lives are affected by many cycles including the passing of a year, 4 seasons, lunar months, 90 minute biological cycles known as ultradian rhythms, and the best known cycle–the 24-hour long circadian rhythm.
People are diurnal creatures by nature, rather than nocturnal creatures: We were made to be active during the day and sleep at night. Normally, our circadian rhythms are synchronized to one another by our internal biological clock and entrained–reset daily–by external time cues like changes in sunlight and social activity surrounding us. When we rotate shifts, we do our best to adjust to suit the shift we are working. However, it takes our circadian rhythms more than a week to adjust to a new sleeping schedule.
The greatest disruption is caused by rotating to night shift. Since many police officers never have time to adjust to one shift, they exist in a state of perpetual internal desynchronization–or continuous fog. There is no way to beat natural biological cycles–best not to fool with mother nature. Each person needs a certain amount of sleep time per day–call it a set time. Our brains accumulate sleep debt or keep track of lost sleep. Our ability to function is disrupted to the degree we have disrespected this cycle.
The negative health effects related to shift work are numerous and firmly established despite individual variability. However, about 20% of people who begin shift work jobs quit soon after, so the negative effects of shift work are difficult to measure. The negative health effects typically identified include chronically disrupted sleep, body temperature, gastrointestinal functioning, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc. and all body functions controlled by the circadian rhythm leading to illness, absenteeism, and accidents. There are disturbances in cognitive processes, memory, psychological and social functioning, marital relationships, sexual activity, and parenting responsibilities. It is exceptionally difficult to maintain ordinary family routines and rituals, which most likely contribute to higher rates of divorce in law enforcement marriages.
There is no aspect of a shift worker’s life that is not affected. Police administrators will be most aware of on-the-job sleepiness, sick leave, accidents, and citizen complaints lodged against police officers suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. As one would expect, younger officers seem to adapt faster to the stress of shift work as compared to older officers.
There is a considerable amount of research concluding that bright light exposure can successfully overcome circadian desynchronization caused by rotation to night shift. While evidence for the efficacy of exercise, melatonin tablets, and nutritional modifications is equivocal, the evidence for bright light exposure is robust. Similarly, the use of properly timed exposure to bright light treatment to treat rotations to other shifts is strong and becoming more refined and specific. The good news is that bright light boxes and dawn simulators work remarkably well. The only bad news is that the word about this solution hasn’t gotten out until now.
Bright Light Equipment
The single most effective strategy to minimize the negative effects of shift work is virtually unknown and used by fewer than 1% of law enforcement officers. The use of bright light equipment is a primary way to reduce shift-work- linked health and social problems. This information about bright light equipment may be the most important information about effective shift work management.
A growing number of luminaries in the field of photo-therapy and shift work are not far from giving a definitive consensus statement on the benefits of light boxes, dawn simulators, and other light products to assist police officers manage the rigors of shift work. Some equipment is half the size of patrol car computers and can be used during the 3 am spike in sleepiness. Light products obtained from reputable organizations and used in the proper manner at specified times will minimize the negative effects of shift work.
It is time that police officers are given scientific assurance and practical advice on how to use bright light equipment to enhance the quality of their lives. Hopefully, this equipment will become standard issue for all new recruits within 5 years.
Readers can obtain detailed information about all aspects of shift work from these links to useful sites: