Cops Need Good Sleep, Too

Good sleep, though sometimes difficult to achieve, is one of the easiest things to identify as a worthy effort for wellness.

And let’s be clear: there is no ambiguity about how much sleep is good or bad for you.  

Some treat sleep like something that can be negotiated down, expendable — a luxury rather than a necessity. Humans are the only creatures that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep. Although we can occasionally get by on less as an exception, we routinely need good sleep day after day.

Unlike the ability to store calories in the form of fat, humans have not evolved any way to “store” sleep. We can skip meals — and in some cases be better off for it — but not so with sleep. Yet we act as if we can.

Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep (instead of seven or eight) begin to feel they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation — that they’ve gotten used to it. However, if you look at how they actually do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. In addition, there’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are.

What this means is that getting by with a lack of sleep is, in reality, becoming accustomed to feeling crappy most of the time. 

Sleep is much more than just fending off exhaustion. A lot goes on while you sleep, including processes that re-energize the body’s cells, clear waste from the brain, and support learning and memory. Without enough sleep, all of this maintenance work goes undone. We will not think, feel, or act normally.

Sleep Problems

Chronic inadequate or non-restorative sleep can be due to a number of factors, including poor bedtime habits, a less than ideal sleep environment, or competing or conflicting life priorities. It could also be due to a diagnosable sleep problem such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, and shift work sleep disorder.

There are others, but these are the big ones for cops. A study of thousands of cops showed that over 40 percent screened positive for at least one sleep disorder. The biggest issue was sleep apnea, with one-third of officers screening positive.

And alcohol can make things worse. A survey of police officers revealed that ten percent of respondents frequently or very frequently used alcohol or other substances to aid in sleep. Although drinking alcohol may help people fall asleep, it negatively impacts REM, or dream sleep, and effectively harms sleep quality. 

Healthy Sleep Fundamentals

Good sleep requires discipline, a conscious effort to make it a priority, and a commitment to good habits and routines. If this sounds too intense and contrary to drifting off to sleep, consider it as creating your own bedtime ritual. 

Basics of Good Sleep

Make sleep a priority.

Maintain a regular sleep schedule by going to bed at the same time. Even more importantly, get up at the same time every day. And when you wake, seek sunlight.

Establish a bedtime routine that is gradually calming, while avoiding bright lights or stimulation.

Create the best sleep environment by keeping the bedroom dark, cool, quiet, and reserved mostly for just sleeping.

Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and large meals close to bedtime.

Exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime.


Odd Hours – Shift Work

Shift workers tend to be continually sleep deprived. It is very hard for night-shift workers to get enough sleep during the day. Even if this is the case, you can make the best of a bad situation to sleep better. 

Shift Work Sleep Tips

Besides the basic tips mentioned earlier, here are some specific tips for those doing shift work:

Take control of whatever part of your schedule you can, and try to adapt a strategy for optimal sleep.

Strategic napping.

Use bright light treatment to manage your light-dark cycle by exposing yourself to bright light in the evening or first part of the night. Additionally, avoid bright light in the morning, which may include wearing sun glasses as you head home from work.

Create a cool, quiet, dark sleep environment using black-out curtains, ear plugs, white-noise machine, fans, and temperature controls.

Avoid caffeine prior to going to sleep. However, it can be used strategically to aid in wakefulness.

Exercise and eat well.

Achieving good sleep might seem like an impossible dream, especially if you are a new cop working odd hours with small children at home. If that’s the case, you have to know there are serious consequences of being less than alert or propped up with energy drinks.

All things considered, making good sleep hygiene a priority — and seeking treatment for chronic sleep problems (such as sleep apnea) — is smart. Sleep is an important issue for everyone’s wellness, but as police officers we have a culture of undervaluing it. There are many factors we cannot control with shift work, but the one thing we can do is to make sleep a priority. This means making small accommodations in our life to ensure we get the best sleep we possibly can.

ArticlesTerry Casey