After the Webinar: Long Work Hours, Shift Schedules and Their Impact on Law Enforcement Personnel. Q&A with Dr. Karen Amendola

Webinar presenter Dr. Karen Amendola answered a number of your questions after her webinar, Long Work Hours, Shift Schedules, and Their Impact on Law Enforcement Personnel. Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question: I work in Community Corrections and we have constantly changing schedules. One day, I might work six hours, and then another day, it can be upwards of 15 hours. Is there research examining the effects of irregular work shifts like this? 

Karen Amendola: That’s an excellent question and thank you for your work in Community Corrections, it’s an important field for sure. I think that much of the early research, both in a range of industries, as well, was in policing, has demonstrated the ill effects of rotating schedules. I’m not sure if this type of irregularity is what you mean. It sounds to me like you mean more a range of times, like a short day one day, a long day the next, definitely problematic. If it’s a 15-hour day, no doubt. But most of the evidence, and most of this —- because most of the studies have looked at shift rotation. If any of those shifts you’re going from a day shift one day, to a night shift the next, to an evening the next, to a day again, or any other form of rotation, especially backward rotation, that the ill effects of those have been demonstrated so many times over. During a period between 2005 and 2011, when we were doing our shift length study, we did surveys with agencies to ask whether they were employing rotating shifts. And, in the beginning, back in 2005, there was a pretty large proportion that we’re doing that. But by 2011, it had dropped down to less than 25% of agencies that were employing rotating shifts. So, it took a long time to get there, in the policing world, the evidence from other industries, I don’t know what it is today, but rotation is probably the worst thing that you can do. Followed by night shifts, and of course, everybody kind of knows about that. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever work night shifts, but to do them for your entire career, there are definite downsides to that. But the idea that somebody might have to work, a six-hour day, one, and 15 the next, and maybe 12 the next, it’s very problematic, because your body adjusts to the schedule that you have, and if your schedule is irregular. And it’s likely that your sleep patterns will be irregular. So, thanks for asking that. If I didn’t answer your question all the way, feel free to e-mail me at the National Policing Institute.


Audience Question: Have these studies extended into Corrections staff, where there’s often less operational flexibility for ideas like naps?

Karen Amendola: Yes, fantastic question. So, I’m actually working on a study, which we’re going to be talking about in the November webinar on organizational stress, and one of the things that we consider organizational stress is shifts and the shift length that people work. And in that study, we’re examining people that work in corrections environments, specifically in jails, as opposed to longer-term correctional settings, but it’s important. And there has been some research on it. Things like naps. I haven’t seen any of the research to date, but there may, in fact, be some. But I recognize that there are certain limitations within a corrections environment like diligence is mandatory at every moment. It’s not quite the same in policing work. Yes, of course, you have to be diligent in policing, but if you are between calls, you might be able to engage in a little bit of community policing or something like that. You can have periods of interruptions whereas in a correctional environment, you’re typically assigned to oversee the resident’s activities, and there are not a lot of breaks in that, that you can take from that, that don’t expose you to certain risks. I would venture to guess, and this is just a guess, but that, that there’s going to need to be greater attention paid to ways to mitigate these effects in correctional settings. I will suggest that those working in Corrections, reach out and talk to researchers who might be willing to explore some of these issues in their settings. There’s far too little research done in correctional settings with regard to things like stress and fatigue amongst officers and officers, health and wellness. Although many correctional organizations are implementing new types of wellness programs. That’s an excellent question, and one that I wish I could be more specific about an answer.


Audience Question: If having less than seven hours of sleep is kind of like being under the influence, aren’t agencies running an incredible risk by allowing people to work when they’re in theory under the influence or having impaired performance? Doesn’t this become a risk management issue? 

Karen Amendola: Well, I love that question. Actually, I will not go so far as to say that officers who haven’t gotten enough sleep are under the influence, so to speak. But there is a parallel to be drawn to the levels of cognitive impairment imposed by fatigue. And therefore, I’m with you, and this is why I started out with these headlines of officers sleeping on the job because the typical thing that we do in this profession is to punish people. And so, we punish them four for sleeping on the job when, in fact, in many cases, the agency has set up the circumstances under which the officer is fatigued. And so, I can’t argue that we know for a fact, what officers are doing and how much sleep they’re getting when they’re not at work. I would argue that if an officer chooses to work an 8 or 10-hour shift and then chooses to have another employment thing that’s authorized whether it be, you know off-duty employment arranged by the agency or your own part-time off-duty assignment, or maybe running a business. That, you know, you could create those conditions yourself by working, you know, 16 or 20 hours in a day. However, this is why I think it’s a partnership that has to take place between law enforcement agencies and their personnel and the union and not in a contentious kind of manner, and some of you are probably chuckling under your breath. When is that not contentious? But this is important to everybody. It should be as important to officers as it is to the organization, and it should be as important to organizations as it is to their officers. And so, that means setting up conditions under which some of that is policy driven. You can’t legislate what people do in their off-duty time, not by and large, I mean, obviously, I can’t break the law, etcetera. But you can’t be a watchdog over how much sleep people are getting. But you can certainly set up a culture in which it’s encouraged that people have good sleep hygiene, that they get enough rest, and that they’re not being asked to work extra overtime in excess. It’s understandable that every once in a while, an officer has to work overtime. It might be court. It might be that the last arrest they made was a DUI arrest and it means two more hours of paperwork booking that person in. But it should not be used as it up replacement for employees, because you don’t have enough authorized personnel. And that’s the mindset that I think has to change. But, yes, I’m with you on the idea that there could be and will likely be, if there haven’t been already lawsuits by officers charging their agencies with putting them in positions to where they’re fatigued and therefore have certain kinds of outcomes that are negative, whether they be for that officer individually, for their health, or for the community.


Audience Question: Have there ever been any studies correlating sleep and use of force incidents or some increases in civilian complaints?

Karen Amendola: Yes. So, I referred to some of the studies about complaints, and so that’s in the slides and some of those are contained in the reference list. With regard to the use of force, the studies that have typically been done, are, like, in judgment, scenario-based things like shoot or don’t shoot scenarios. I’m not as comfortable with extrapolating those results, or the things that have been done in those kinds of settings to actual real-life use-of-force incidents. But I will say that Bryan Vila, who sort of started, was really a pioneer in this field and looking at Officer, Safety, Health, and Wellness and looking at fatigue and tired cops, which is the name of, one of the critical articles that he wrote on a study he did with the Police Executive Research Forum or PERF called Tired Cops. That’s a strong possibility. And I would certainly add to his concern that was expressed years ago, that we now know that there are cognitive detriments as people become more and more fatigued on the job, and those cognitive detriments are usually in things like reaction time, decision making, and judgment. And so, to the extent that the use of force is not just a reactive thing it definitely could be impeded. And to the extent that it is reactive, in some cases, it could actually lead to too late of a shot. So, I definitely think both the use of force and risk to officers who are being fired upon or being threatened in a significant manner could be impacted by fatigue.


Audience Question: I have been doing patrol staffing analysis for agencies for years, and it is so hard to get officers to move away from twelves even though the data proves that tens are better. And it’s now even worse with high attrition rates. Agencies think they don’t have the staff to do tens, but it’s completely untrue. What can we do to help our leadership shift their own thinking, understand this data, and start to take actual action on it? 

Karen Amendola: Wow, Lori, fantastic. So, yes, and I’ve looked at these, like, trying to schedule things for years, as well, in various agencies. And scheduling is an extreme challenge. But the attrition point was brought up and so I wanted to maybe hit that first. So, you’re going to hear, and you probably already have heard, and we’re going to continue to hear that, we’ve got to offer 12-hour shifts or fewer days at work because otherwise, we’re going to lose people to other agencies. And what I like to say about this, and I’ve kind of been saying it for years, but I haven’t really written about it at all. Our mentality about how we recruit and select individuals has not advanced much at all in three decades, really since, like the eighties and maybe into the very early nineties. What does that mean? That means everybody thinks that we’re selecting from a limited pool of people who have self-selected and have chosen to go into law enforcement as a career. Even as young as when they were age two, what did they know about policing when they were age two? Maybe they saw the image of a really friendly cop. Maybe they saw the image of a cop that had a lot of power and authority and had a gun. Who knows? But this idea that the only people that we have to choose from are those who come to us knocking on the door, is a ridiculous strategy in my view, and one that has been relied on for far too long. If we all use that in our personal lives, we’d be married to, or in some of the worst relationships of our life, if we just responded to those who are interested in us. And so, I challenge law enforcement leaders to go out there and not just go to the opposite coast. Oh, I’m in New York, I can’t get officers, I’m going to go to LA and then I’m in LA, I’m going to go to New York. We’re working on a zero-sum game where there’s only a certain pool of people. And maybe not all of those are the best people. Some people self-select in for the right reasons, and some may not. And so, I challenge you to talk to people like English majors and sociology majors and psychology majors, and those that haven’t gone to college, that have an interest in working with people, or that have demonstrated an interest in working with people to recruit. And so, while this is not a discussion about recruitment, it’s simply a way to say that we have to stop getting into the mindset, where we say, “We have to do this. We have to lower our standards. We have to increase the risk on officers because they want to work 15-hour shifts.” That’s just not right thinking, It’s not reasonable, it’s not logical, and it is not evidence-based. And so, what can we do?

We can continue to press for the accurate and rigorous science to be spread, to be shared, to encourage additional research, to promote those policies that produce the safest healthiest officers and the most effective officers in the field, as well as agencies that can be trusted by their communities.


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