02/13/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

Police Don't Get Enough Sleep

This news concerns me both as a health issue and an issue of public safety: A survey of nearly 5,000 police officers in the U.S. and Canada revealed that these law enforcement professionals are frequently suffering from sleep problems -- and this lack of sleep is negatively affecting both their health and their performance on the job.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital screened 4,957 police officers for sleep disorders, beginning with an initial screening and following with check-in screenings every six months for the next two years. Their results showed a significant portion of police officers grappling with sleep disorders, weight problems, and complications from lack of sleep. Among the nearly 5,000 police officers who were screened:

  • 40 percent had some type of sleep disorder
  • 6.5 percent suffered from moderate to severe insomnia
  • 33.0 percent had obstructive sleep apnea

The link between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity is clear: being overweight or obese is the single greatest risk factor for sleep apnea. In this study:

  • Four out of five police officers were overweight or obese

Not surprisingly, officers who screened positive for obstructive sleep apnea were more likely to have other health problems as well. Those officers who suffered from obstructive sleep apnea were also:

  • 61 percent more likely to have diabetes
  • 148 percent more likely to report a diagnosis of depression
  • 22 percent more likely to have an injury while on the job

These findings echo an earlier, similar study, also conducted at Harvard Medical School. The results also point to the sleep hazards associated with shift work, and the difficulty of these workers in protecting the quality and quantity of their sleep while working frequently changing schedules that often span both day and night shifts. Shift workers generally get about two hours' less sleep than other types of workers, and as a result are at greater risk for a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight problems and psychological problems.

It so happens that these workers are often in high-stress jobs where public health and safety are at stake. In addition to law enforcement officers, health-care workers, members of the military, airline pilots and air-traffic controllers are all frequently working day and night shifts, with changing schedules that make it difficult to establish and sustain a sleep routine. Their health and well being is more than a private matter: it is a matter of concern for all of us, a public safety issue as well as a personal health issue.

This most recent study indicates that police officers who are suffering from sleep problems are at higher risk for errors on the job. The officers who screened positive for sleep problems had higher rates of several job performance issues than their better-sleeping counterparts. They were more likely to:

  • Commit a serious administrative error
  • Fall asleep while driving on a shift
  • Make an error or commit a violation that was attributed to fatigue
  • Demonstrate poor behavior, including uncontrolled anger

There was one group of police officers included in this study that did not conform to the study's overall results. Members of the Massachusetts State Police had significantly lower rates of obstructive sleep apnea than the general study populations. Not surprisingly, the Massachusetts officers also had much lower rates of obesity.

What made the Massachusetts State Police so different from the overall group? In discussing the study results, researchers point to the agency's emphasis and encouragement of exercise and physical fitness.

  • Massachusetts requires its state police officers to pass a fitness test
  • All state police barracks are equipped with physical fitness centers on the premises
  • The agency requires that all its officers spend 60 minutes exercising on each of their shifts. This is paid work time, within a shift, not an extra or unpaid hour of work

This is a great example of how investing in employee health pays great dividends for everyone involved. In this case, that means healthier, more capable officers with fewer health issues -- and less risk of workplace accidents, errors or incidents. This is a sleep issue that should matter to all of us, whether we personally know and love someone who works shifts or not. Our law enforcement officers -- like our doctors, nurses, soldiers, firefighters and pilots -- are people we entrust with our safety and security, and our health. It's in everyone's best interest for these people to be well rested and healthy themselves.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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