Is fatigue the greatest threat to UK policing?
At first glance the threat of fatigue to policing may seem like an extraordinary assertion. Surely UK policing (and other police forces around the world) have much bigger issues to worry about, no? Marcus de Guingand, Managing Director, Third Pillar of Health investigates.
In this article i’ll explore some of the findings on fatigue across 12 UK police forces, link this to outside pressures, review the results of research and look at the consequences of police fatigue.
What is the state of fatigue across UK policing?
Between 2014 and 2017 Third Pillar of Health ran its online sleep health self-assessment for 3,410 police officers (with a small proportion of police staff). The assessment has been put together with leading sleep research scientists. Key findings included:
- 67% of police officers say fatigue interferes with daily work activities at least a few days a month (38% at least a few times per week and 10% daily).
- Prior to a workday average sleep duration is just six hours 20 minutes – well below the recommended minimum of seven hours a night.
- 69% of officers achieve less than seven hours of sleep prior to a workday (41% less than six hours and 20% less than five hours).
- 87% of officers are not meeting their sleep need over the course of a shift rotation (including days on and days off).
- 84% of police officers do not feel as though they achieve enough sleep.
- 23% of officers have been diagnosed with or are deemed to be at risk of sleep apnoea, 11% restless leg syndrome and 51% in the case of insomnia.
So, as we can see these statistics do not paint a picture of great sleep health. Insufficient and poor quality sleep is linked to poor health and performance outcomes.
What other factors could be influencing fatigue?
The timing of the assessment coincided with government austerity measures which led to initial and ongoing cuts to police budgets. With very little slack left in police budgets and a high proportion of remaining cost being the police officers themselves we saw a significant reduction in police officer numbers throughout the UK.
This was justified on the basis of falling crime. But complexity of crime being investigated has increased and the police are often picking up the slack in other areas – notably in mental health care. Arguably demands on police officers at the very least remained constant.
We also saw police stations being closed and consolidation of stations in the bigger towns and cities, which tend to have higher housing costs, meaning officers often lived further from their places of work. Neighbouring forces amalgamated some of their divisions meaning that officers had to cover much larger geographical areas. Both of these changes had significant effects on commuting durations.
Shift patterns also started to change. We saw fewer officers working eight to 10 hour shifts and an increase in officers working 12-hour shifts as chief constables tried to continue to meet demand.
So now imagine your shift duration has increased at the same time as your commuting duration. We still have similar demands on our time outside of work, meaning the window to achieve sufficient good quality sleep diminishes.
One other interesting statistic was that 86% of officers rarely or never took their scheduled rest breaks during a shift. This means they do not have a chance to unwind at all and it also makes it more difficult to eat a healthy and nutritious meal.
What other research has been conducted in to police fatigue and what does the research tell us about the effects of fatigue on officers?
Most of the research conducted in this field has been in the United States and Canada. We know that shift working and the demands of policing result in insufficient and poor quality sleep, poor health and performance outcomes as well as degradation in decision making and performance in safety-critical tasks.
In 2010 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of 4,957 officer in the US and Canada showed that 40% of officers screened positive for at least one sleep disorder. Those who screened positive were more likely to:
- Report depression;
- Fall asleep while driving;
- Make admin errors;
- Experience uncontrolled anger towards civilians;
- Incur citizen complaints; or
- Fall asleep during meetings.
A 2012 study by Iowa University and published in the Workplace Health & Safety Journal found that police officers who sleep less than six hours a night are more susceptible to chronic fatigue and health problems such as being overweight or obese and contracting diabetes or heart disease.
In the Third Pillar of Health study 62% of officers were classed as overweight or obese (based on BMI).
Professor Bryan Vila (author of Tired Cops – Balancing Workplace and Social Justice) noted that even day-to-day sleep deprivation degrades performance in the types of on duty activities that most frequently kill or injure police, including road traffic accidents and dealing with violent suspects.
A case study from policing the 2012 Montreal tuition fee riots found that intense periods of operations made it difficult for officers to rest and recharge leading to significant fatigue. When tired the ability to make decisions, deal with conflict, control emotions, perceive what was happening around them and respond appropriately all diminished. Creative thinking and trouble-shooting also became impaired. When tired there was also an increased tendency to feel threatened. This made the balance between controlled force and the cessation of controlled force more difficult to achieve.
Additional research by Lauren Waggoner (2012) and Neylan et al (2010) showed the effects of night work on waking alertness and ability to sleep during the day resulted in degraded performance in tasks such as simulated deadly force, driving and decision making, especially in ambiguous and fast-paced situations.
Further work by David Blake and Edward Cumella, reported on the website Police One in 2014 showed that many fatigue measures correlated strongly with officers’ impaired decision-making and slowed reaction times within (simulated) deadly force situations. In particular, poor sleep quality, greater total time awake, more days worked and working night or swing shifts all decreased the accuracy of officers’ decision to ‘shoot or don’t shoot’
Back in 2008 Police Review conducted a survey of 151 officers asking if they’d ever knowingly driven home after a night shift when too tired. 99% of respondents answered yes. In that same issue the charity Care of Police Survivors said that death while travelling to and from work is the biggest cause of on-duty deaths (in the UK) accounting for 66% of all deaths.
So, let’s return to the title question: Is fatigue the greatest threat to UK policing? Well, perhaps not directly, but indirectly fatigue is a serious issue. Most officers simply want to provide the best possible service to the public. Fatigue and the current state of policing make that more difficult.
Also, we can’t pretend that fatigue is only an issue in policing. Sleep deprivation is so widespread that every industry is affected. We all suffer from poor health, performance and executive functioning.
Perhaps all organisations need to take the issue more seriously.
Recently, Dr Karen McDonnell, Occupational Health & Safety Policy Adviser at RoSPA, asked How resilient do we really expect our fire and emergency services to be? Click here for more.
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