Night Patrol for Tired Cops: Police lose sleep over workday hassles

You need to be well-rested and alert to catch criminals and uphold the law. However, many of the public servants charged with these duties suffer from insomnia and other serious sleep problems, according to a new study.

SNOOZE ALERT. Everyday stress may rob police of their needed sleep. Grand Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police

Among big-city police officers, about half go without a good night’s sleep because of myriad everyday pressures at work, say psychiatrist Thomas C. Neylan of the VA Medical Center in San Francisco and his colleagues. Job strains for the men and women in blue include frequently conflicting demands by police supervisors, judges, attorneys, reporters, and the general public.

In contrast, life-threatening and violent encounters in the line of duty exert little influence on the overall amount and quality of sleep experienced by police officers, Neylan’s team reports in the March/April Psychosomatic Medicine. Still, nightmares occur more often among those who have faced on-the-job traumas, such as getting injured and witnessing deaths.

“It’s the hassles of police officers’ everyday work environment that are related to their high rates of disturbed sleep,” Neylan says.

There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about a potentially large contingent of sleep-deprived police officers, he adds. Other research has linked stress-related sleep problems to weakened resistance to disease and declines in concentration and motor skills.

Neylan and his coworkers recruited 733 male and female officers from police departments in New York City and Oakland and San Jose, Calif. The study also included 330 men and women from the same cities whose jobs didn’t include police, emergency, or security work. Most volunteers in both groups were 30 to 40 years old and married. About three-quarters of the police officers and one-quarter of the others regularly shifted between day and night work schedules.

Study participants completed questionnaires on the quality of their sleep in the past month and the stress they faced at work. They also described any psychiatric symptoms they had experienced and traumatic events they had encountered on and off the job.

Compared with the other group, police officers reported much worse sleep quality and an average of about 30 fewer minutes of sleep per night.

Nearly half the police officers reported symptoms of insomnia or other sleep problems. These findings held regardless of whether police officers worked variable schedules or strictly day shifts, Neylan says.

In the comparison group, severe sleep disturbances affected about one-third of people who worked variable schedules and one-fourth of those who worked days.

Police officers with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder or other psychiatric ailments cited more than their share of sleep disturbances, Neylan notes. After the researchers accounted for this factor, however, the high levels of routine daily stress at work reported by police officers still showed a strong link to disturbed sleep.

Fatigue among police officers has received increasing attention in the past few years among law-enforcement administrators. The new findings emphasize that sleep represents a critical health issue for police departments, especially given the added stresses that have emerged since last year’s terrorist attacks, remarks psychiatrist Charles F. Reynolds III of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.

“Sleep disturbances may provide a link between chronic job stress and increased rates of suicide, depression, and other psychiatric disorders among police officers,” Reynolds says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.