The Impact of Poor Sleep Quality on Police Officers

As part of our continuing search for the “hidden dangers” of police work, examines the issues surrounding shift work, stress and the importance of proper sleep to keep police officers rested and ready for the job.

According to a large British study released in  September of 2007 and reported by Reuters “People who do not get enough sleep are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease, Although the reasons are unclear, researchers said lack of sleep appeared to be linked to increased blood pressure, which is known to raise the risk of heart attacks and stroke.  A 17-year analysis of 10,000 government workers… showed those who cut their sleep from seven hours a night to five or less faced a 1.7-fold increased risk of death from all causes and more than double the risk of cardiovascular death.

Another study from January of 2009 suggests that “People who get less than seven hours of sleep at night have a three times higher risk of catching a cold than people who sleep eight hours or more.”

A study by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also linked light sleepers to higher smoking rates, less physical activity and more alcohol use. The research adds weight to a stream of studies that have found obesity and other health problems in those who don’t get proper shuteye, said Dr. Ron Kramer, a Colorado physician and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.  “The data is all coming together that short sleepers and long sleepers don’t do so well,” Kramer said.

And we in law enforcement are not immune, in a report entitled “Sleep Disorders Highly Prevalent Among Police Officers” it suggests that sleep problems “are exacerbated in shift workers such as police officers, who may experience chronic sleep loss due to their schedules. The study, authored by Shantha M.W. Rajaratnam, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, was based on the responses of 4,471 police officers and determined  that “sleep disorders appear to be highly prevalent in the present sample of police officers”.  Rajaratnam also said: “Sleep disorder screening and treatment programs may potentially improve police officer health, safety and productivity.”  The report also said that the amount of sleep a person gets affects his or her physical health, emotional well-being, mental abilities, productivity and performance. Recent studies associate lack of sleep with serious health problems such as an increased risk of depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  Experts recommend that adults get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night to maintain good health and optimum performance.

The Police Policy Studies Council quotes a story from the CBS show Health Watch in 2001 describing Sleep Deprivation as ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ for Cops.  The documentay cites studies, including two in from the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, showing that the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to the changes in ability and judgment seen in a person under the influence of alcohol. “Seventeen hours without sleep is equivalent to a .05 blood alcohol level, and 24 hours without sleep is like a .01 blood alcohol level.

The PPSC article also quoted the author of “Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue” (2000, Police Executive Research Forum), as suggesting that police fatigue can play a role in questionable shootings, especially in low-light conditions.

So we aren’t sleeping or not sleeping well, what can we do.  CopsAlive found an interesting paper written for the E.M.U. School of Police Staff Command entitled “Preparing for the Physical and Mental Demands of Working the Midnight Shift” by Lt. Scott Affholter of the Wyandotte Police Department in Wyandotte, MI.  In his paper he makes some good suggestions about  Sleep Environment, Nutrition and Exercise and  Sleeping/Waking cycles.  He drew some of his materials from a wellness presentation for  future night shift workers studying at Vanderbilt University.  There are some great ideas about adjusting your sleep to waking cycle that are better viewed visually by CLICKING HERE to see the PDF of that Powerpoint slideshow.

Here also are some tips and resources for you:

Ten Tips for Better Sleep from the Mayo Clinic

* Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.
* Don’t eat or drink large amounts before bedtime.
* Eat a light dinner about two hours before sleeping. If you’re prone to heartburn, avoid spicy or fatty foods.
* Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
* Exercise regularly.
* Make your bedroom cool, dark, quiet and comfortable.
* Sleep primarily at night. If you work nights, keep your window coverings closed so that sunlight, which adjusts the body’s internal clock, doesn’t interrupt your sleep.
* Choose a comfortable mattress and pillow.
* Start a relaxing bedtime routine. Do the same things each night to tell your body it’s time to wind down.
* Go to bed when you’re tired and turn out the lights. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes, get up and do something else. Go back to bed when you’re tired. Don’t agonize over falling asleep. The stress will only prevent sleep.
* Use sleeping pills only as a last resort.
CLICK HERE for their full set of recommendations.

The Better Sleep Council recommends:
1.) Pay your sleep debt. Getting even 30 minutes less sleep than your body needs can lead to accumulated sleep debt, which has both short- and long-term consequences for health, mood and performance, both on and off the job. It’s important to schedule 8 hours of sleep each night (7.5 to 8.5 is optimal) and maintain a regular sleep and wake schedule, even on the weekend.
2.) Performance evaluation. Though your mattress may not show physical signs of wear, it loses comfort and support over the years. It’s important to evaluate your mattress every five to seven years to ensure it still provides optimal comfort and support. Research shows that the age of a mattress directly impacts the quality of sleep.
3.) Bedroom business. Use your bedroom for sleep and sex only. The bedroom should be an uncluttered environment that is relaxing, comfortable and conducive to sleep and relaxation. Keep work, computers and televisions out of the bedroom!
4.) Kick the caffeine habit. Research shows that caffeine interferes with getting a restful night’s sleep and waking refreshed in the morning. Avoid tea, coffee and soft drinks close to bedtime.
5.) Make the investment. You spend one-third of your life in bed. Be sure to invest in the best quality and most comfortable mattress you can afford to ensure a great night’s rest for a healthier, happier and more productive you.

And finally here are some more tips from

* Sleep is as important as food and air. Quantity and quality are very important. Most adults need between 7.5 to 8.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep. If you press the snooze button on the alarm in the morning you are not getting enough sleep. This could be due to not enough time in bed, external disturbances, or a sleep disorder.
* Use the bed for sleeping. Avoid watching TV or using laptop computers. Know that reading in bed can be a problem if the material is very stimulation and you read with a bright light. If it helps to read before sleep make sure you use a very small wattage bulb to read. A 15 watt bulb should be enough. Bright light from these activities may inhibit sleep.
* Avoid bright light around the house before bed. Using dimmer switches in living rooms and bathrooms before bed can be helpful. (Dimmer switches can be set to maximum brightness for morning routines.)
* Don’t stress if you feel you are not getting enough sleep. It will just make matters worse. Know you will sleep eventually.
* Avoid exercise near bedtime. No exercise at least 3 hours before bed.
* Don’t go to bed hungry. Have a light snack, avoid a heavy meal before bed.
* Bedtime routines are helpful for good sleep. Keep routines on your normal schedule. A cup of herbal tea an hour before bed can begin a routine.
* Avoid looking at the clock if you wake up in the middle of the night. It can cause anxiety. This is very difficult for most of us, so turn the clock away from your eyes so you would have to turn it to see the time. You may decide not to make the effort and go right back to sleep.
* If you can’t get to sleep for over 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring in dim light till you are sleepy.
* Keep your bedroom at comfortable temperature. Not too warm and not too cold. Cooler is better than warmer.
* If you have problems with noise in your environment you can use a white noise generator. A old fan will work or you can buy noise machies from many sources.
* Know that the “night cap” has a price. Alcohol may help you to get to sleep but it will cause you to wake up throughout the night. You may not notice it. (It is worse if you have sleep apnea because the alcohol makes the apnea worse.) Sometimes people snore only if they have had some alcohol or may snore worse if they already snore.)
* If you have a sleeping partner, ask them if they notice any snoring, leg movements and/or pauses in breathing . Take this information and try the sleep test. You may have a sleep disorder or you may just need to increase your awareness about your own sleep need. If you have any concerns see your doctor.

Here are some resources for you to use to get more information on what was presented and some additional ones that we didn’t have space to mention.  Good luck and stay safe and rested!


“Lack of sleep may be deadly, research shows”

“Lack of Sleep Raises Common Cold Risk: Study”

“Too much, or little sleep tied to ill health in CDC study”

“Sleep Disorders Highly Prevalent Among Police Officers”

Sleep Deprivation: ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ for Cops

Critical Incident Exposure and Sleep Quality in Police Officers

Industrial Health Article
Sleep, Sleepiness and Health Complaints in Police Officers: The Effects of a Flexible Shift System

The Mediating Effects of Sleep in the Relationship Between Traumatic Stress and Health Symptoms in Urban Police Officers

“Graveyard shift work linked to cancer”

These are Recommended Links from Medical News Today

* American Sleep Association
Detailed information for Patients and Healthcare Professionals.

American Sleep Association

* Insomnia123
Information to help people with insomnia manage the condition, including free sleep music with guided imagery and an interactive ‘Sleep Diary’.
* Sleep Disorders Guide
A comprehensive information guide about sleep disorders, which includes descriptions, symptoms, causes and treatments of various sleep disorders.
* SleepNet
A site detailing sleep disorders, and suggestions on how to overcome them.

Photo Credit:”Troubled Sleep” by Ludwig Van Standardlamp as Creative Commons on

About Editor

John Marx was a Police Officer for twenty-three years and served as a Hostage Negotiator for nineteen of those years. He worked as a patrol officer, media liaison officer, crime prevention officer and burglary detective. Also during his career he served as administrator of his city's Community Oriented Governance initiative through the police department's Community Policing project. Today John combines his skills to consult with businesses about improving both their security and their customer service programs. John retired from law enforcement in 2002. When one of his friends, also a former police officer, committed suicide at age 38, John was devastated and began researching the problems that stress creates for police officers. He decided he needed to do something to help change those problems and he wanted to give something back to the profession that gave him so much. He started a project that has evolved into Put simply, the mission of CopsAlive is to save the lives of those who save lives! gathers information, strategies and tools to help law enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful careers, relationships and lives.
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  1. Pingback: Getting Enough Sleep is Critical to Your Safety and Success | Total Police Wellness Project

  2. Sandra Aponte Salazar

    Invaluable article!

    I teach police officers in Central America and this is one constant struggle for them.

    I have shared the link to this article with some, but most can only read Spanish.

    Please allow me to translate it (at no cost), so that this information may reach them.

    You may find me and references of me in LinkedIn:

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Sleep to Police Officers | Cops Alive | Police Stress and Health - Career Survival

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