Home Career The Impact of Stress and Fatigue on Law Enforcement Officers and Steps to Control It

The Impact of Stress and Fatigue on Law Enforcement Officers and Steps to Control It

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By Mark Bond, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Law enforcement officers recognize that stress is part of the profession and working conditions. In the past, police culture did not recognize stress as a problem affecting their officers. However, there is now plenty of evidence and research showing that unmanaged stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What many officers might not be aware of is the long-term effects of chronic fatigue and the relationship between stress and fatigue. Not getting enough rest and not eating properly in order to fuel the body can increase the effects of fatigue. Being fatigued on-duty causes many issues, such as poor decision making and other cognitive task difficulties.

Police officer distressed
Photo by Kevin R. Davis

When stress is preventing normal sleep times (6 to 8 hours, recommended), an officer can quickly encounter sleep deprivation. A study conducted in 2011 compared the effects of sleep deprivation to excessive drinking of alcohol and found the effects on a driver were very similar.

Both sleep deprivation and alcohol caused impaired speech, inability to balance, impaired eye-hand coordination, and falling asleep behind the wheel (Senjo, 2011). When officers are constantly fatigued after their shift, they often do not find the time to unwind, change gears, and enjoy their time off away from the job.

Effects of Fatigue on Performance

A 2012 study on police officer fatigue revealed the following alarming facts (Basińska & Wiciak, 2012). Fatigued officers:

  • Use more sick time.
  • Have difficulty managing successful personal relationships.
  • Have time management issues (reporting for duty on time).
  • Make mistakes on departmental and court paperwork.
  • Tend to sleep on duty (often due to rotating shiftwork).
  • Generate higher rates of citizen complaints for reported misconduct.
  • Tend to have problems communicating with supervisors and have stressful relationships with superiors.
  • Have problems testifying in court regarding being prepared.
  • Experience more accidental injuries on duty.
  • Early retirement (often due to burnout).
  • Are at a higher risk of being seriously injured or killed because of lack of focus and not recognizing danger signs.

Even with the current departmental manpower issues caused by the current economic times, already overworked officers continue to work double shifts, special patrol details, and second jobs. Studies have shown that fatigued officers have performance issues on and off duty. Officers are willing to sacrifice their health and safety by accepting the increase workload to provide the extra income for their families, despite the warning signs caused by working while fatigued.

It is the responsibility of elected officials and senior law enforcement officers to bring reasonable balance through policies that are supported by research. Recent studies show that police culture still supports the mentality that working more is better for your career, despite the data that chronic fatigue causes serious performance and health issues (Basińska & Wiciak, 2012; Senjo, 2011).

Health Issues with Chronic Fatigue

The research tells us that chronic fatigue affects the mental and physical health of police officers (Basińska & Wiciak, 2012; Senjo, 2011). Fatigued officers:

  • Have impaired judgment.
  • Experience weight gain or unhealthy weight loss.
  • Show an increase in and presence of severe mood swings.
  • Demonstrate impaired eye-hand coordination.
  • Have increased anxiety or depression.
  • Have increased change of substance-abuse addiction.
  • Show increased gastrointestinal problems (loss of appetite and/or stomach ulcers).
  • Have increased reports of back pain and frequent headaches.
  • Have increased chance of PTSD.
  • Demonstrate inappropriate reactions to a situation (excessive use of force).
  • Show increased risk of serious health problems such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Steps to Reduce Police Fatigue

The working conditions of law enforcement officers are not likely to change given the realities of the current police officer comforting officereconomy. But there are things that officers can do to control it. For example, officers can control how they choose to react to stressful incidents and must acknowledge that fatigue plays a direct role on personal stress levels. Officers will react as they have been trained when they are properly rested and alert. There are several steps that an officer can take to reduce their personal fatigue (Basińska & Wiciak, 2012; Senjo, 2011).

Law enforcement officers can:

  1. Plan meals and make healthy eating choices, and stop eating high-calorie fast food.
  2. Plan vacation and downtime.
  3. See your doctor regularly for checkups.
  4. Share the workload and reduce the amount of overtime.
  5. Live within your means so that “moonlighting” that second job is not necessary.
  6. Create a realistic exercise program and form healthy habits.
  7. Create a “Patrol Buddy” program and make time to check on each other.
  8. Keep your civilian friends and get away from the job (no shop talk on downtime).

About the Author: Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 29 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military and local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with summa cum laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education with a concentration in distance education. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is one of the faculty directors in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at Mark.Bond(at)mycampus.apus.edu.

References

Basińska, B. A., & Wiciak, I. (2012). Fatigue and professional burnout in police officers and firefighters. Internal Security, 4(2), 265-273. Retrieved from EBSCO Suite database.

Senjo, S. R. (2011). Dangerous fatigue conditions: A study of police work and law enforcement administration. Police Practice & Research, 12(3), 235-252. doi:10.1080/15614263.2010.497659

Comments

Comment(26)

  1. Whether it is falling asleep while driving or having issues while testifying in court after pulling a midnight shift, the fallout from fatigue can be dangerous to the individual officer. While agencies seem to frown upon officers in uniform hung over and reeking from last night’s alcohol, they seem to turn a blind eye to the issue of officer fatigue and the ramifications of working with this type of impairment.

    1. Very true. Plus, the shift work schedule of a 24/7 operation can really take its toll. Most agencies don’t rotate shifts anymore but there are still a few that do. Studies have shown that there are ways to rotate shifts in a manner that affects the circadian rhythm much less than others but agencies usually only pay attention to how they can switch schedule in a manner that saves dollars.

  2. Chuck- The data indicates that officers who are fatigued on duty have a higher rate of accidents and injuries because they are not as alert. Many of the safety issues that are caused by fatigue can and should be addressed by elected officials and senior department leadership with higher salaries (so officers are not forced to work part-time moonlighting). 4-10 shifts (stabilize the shifts for better sleep patterns and schedule time off), and court schedules that do not require officers who worked a mid-night shift to then be in court the next morning. These are just a few issues driving the unsafe practice of working fatigued.
    Thanks for the excellent dialog.
    Mark B

  3. Mark I am a police officer myself however after reading your article the only miss conception that I “believe” I see here is policy. It is up to the individual officer to determine what he should and should not be doing. Of course higher wages would be a significant step forward to making life easier for police however in many jurisdictions this is not possible some due to greedy administrations/legislatures and in others the tax payers themselves. I do know that more than anything else I have ever seen in both the military and in police is that moral is the key. When the moral is high with the officers on the street then the stress level and fatigue tends to be much lower. This is because these officers have “fun” at work instead of “working”. I do not discount anything in your article but I think that its more on the officer to decide how much stress he can handle.

    De Ne Des Vertis, Let Valor Not Fail

    1. I’m a 15-year veteran LEO and I understand your point of view, but I would take one minor exception to your comment.

      Higher wages, whilst always a good idea, is merely a symptom of a greater issue. The problem becomes that we became dependent on the OT. When wages increase, we see opportunity to work more OT and make more money to pay for things we had no business buying in the first place.

      I speak from experience. My wife and I paid off $77,232.88 in two days shy of 28 months on only my income. How? Living beneath our means, budgeting and living intentionally.

      Sure, during that 28 months, I worked a ton of OT, but I was mindful of the other steps in this column and I had a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goal for getting out of debt.

      I started a business, GPS Financial Coaching, to inspire hope and walk with others toward the same peace I have found in my finances.

      1. Jason,

        I agree and you make an excellent point. This is one reason I believe that officers OT and moonlighting should be limited by policy and general orders. Officers are not going to voluntarily cap potential earnings on their own. Working OT and part-time gigs is a practice that has been going on for years, and it is part of the culture but realistic it is dangerous when we work to the point of exhaustion. The studies and evidence are clear what happens to us when we work exhausted. This is a safety issue and for leadership to not step in and address the problem through a combination of policy and training is failed leadership.

        Thanks for the excellent dialog and comments.
        Be safe!

        Mark B

      2. I agree wholeheartedly with the need to live within your means to reduce stress. I was one who learned that the hard way. I went through the whole gamut in the 90’s. Bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce and cancer shortly thereafter. Much of this was caused by my ex-wife having medical issues but we made our mistakes with money as well. I firmly believe my cancer was partly due to the stress of a bad marriage, numerous financial issues and the strain of always working 2-3 jobs plus overtime and details to keep above water.

        I got married again in 02 and was able to buy a small house. My wife and I are very conservative spenders (I learned my lesson; She was born smart). We lived below our means, worked hard and paid off a 30 year mortgage in 9 years. Learning to live with very low debt and a cop and waitress salary has allowed us to have a huge peace of mind as well as travel the world. She is from Thailand and we have traveled Asia extensively many times, Europe, the USA and last summer, upon my retirement and completion of my degree we drove the RV to Alaska for four months.

        Now, I ventured back into law enforcement part-time in a very small PD that serves a very wealthy community of about 450 millionaire residents. We call it concierge-style police work. It’s an enjoyable place to work and I do it, as in the very beginning of my career, because I want to.

        I hope that sharing my experience helps reinforce your statement on living financially responsibly.

    2. Chris,

      Hello and thank you for your thoughtful comments. The more we openly discuss issues the better solutions and critical thinking we can bring to helping find better ways.

      Asking an officer to decide how much is enough when it comes to working long hours, is like asking a NFL player if he is OK to go back into the game when clearly, his bell is still ringing and legs are wobbling under him.

      I agree that we all process and handle stress differently but from my experience, none of my old squad members would have tapped out on their own, including me. I know I have spent many a full day in court, got home for a power nap, and back on duty not fully rested. I was an accident waiting to happen when I reflect on how exhausted I was at times.

      The elected officials and police administrators could help take away some of the burden with policies that address officer safety and health.

      Please be safe and thank you for your service!

      Mark B

  4. Mark,

    Thank you for this article. I am a 10 year officer and currently back in Patrol as an FTO. I will be bringing it to Briefing on Friday morning. I am on the odd shift, so between work and family, sleep is at a minimum. My current shift is Friday 0600-1830, Saturday 1330-0200, and Sunday 1800-0630. You’d think you’d get more sleep, but not when you have kids. When I worked Motors, I loved the 4/10 schedule. 3/12.5s is killer. Thank you for your service. Stay safe.

    Jeremy

  5. Jeremy,

    Hello and Happy Wednesday!

    I think it is a great conversation to have with your shift and the more we discuss areas of concerns the better chance we will find a creative solution and safer habits.

    Thank you for your service, and be safe!

    Mark B

  6. Mark, thank you very much for your article, it was very well written. Police Officer Suicides and stress are topics that are not addressed very well. These issues should be addressed a all levels of Law Enforcement, starting at the Academy level and also at retirement level.

    I’m a staff member of National Police Suicide Fondation and Badge of Life. I’m also still active Deputy Sheriff, Sergeant in the Traffic Unit.

    I do a lot of public speaking about these topics.

    Thanks again and be safe,

    Mark

    1. Mark D,

      Hello and Happy Wednesday!

      It can be very uncomfortable at times discussing topics that are shunned by law enforcement culture because they make us seem vulnerable or weak. We must be willing to engage in the tuff and often uncomfortable dialog so that we can find solutions together.

      Thank you for helping lead and open the dialog so that we can protect the profession and officers we respect and love. Suicide, stress, PTSD, and burnout are real issues in law enforcement that need to be studied for understanding, preventing, and healing.

      Stay safe!
      Mark B

  7. Mark,

    I work at a Federal Law Enforcement Academy. We currently create our own monthly training that is pushed out to the field (agency wide) in the form of .ppt presentation and augmented with a short quiz. though this somewhat archaic method we are slowly converting to a more cutting edge media presentation for our monthly training. We have used canned training material from several vendors over the years and find that creating our own fills the need for specific topics and training. I have used an article before from Police.one written by Dave Smith and got authorization to use excerpts from his short article titled “The Deadly Dangers De-Training”. I used his article as a frame work and customized it for our officers in the field with specific examples that we face. I would like to do the same and use this article as a framework for a presentation of a monthly training topic. I was hoping to get authorization from you to use excerpts from this article and the checklists presented. Dave Smith has his own company and had direct e-mail links and was able to go direct for authorization. Not sure if there is a better way for this other than asking you directly. I assume you can see my individual e-mail from my submission?? and feel that it may be better to respond to me that way if possible. We keep authorizations on file. It can be as simple as an e-mail. We are a FLETA Accredited Academy with three FLETA Accredited Programs as of now. Copyright authorizations and other forms of approval and authorizations are kept as supporting evidence when meeting FLETA standards. Hope to hear from you.

    Thank You
    V/R
    Conrad

  8. Mark, thank you for this article. I have just shared it with my best friend who I love very much. I see the patterns. He’s been working too many double shifts and IT lately. I worry about him. I know he’s been under a ton of stress and has shown anxiety. It has caused misunderstandings between us. I will do anything to help and support him. I have suggested some much needed time off soon.

    To the rest on this post, than you for your service.

    A lifelong LEO supporter,

    Sara

  9. this article I very interesting.. I am leaving the NFL for law enforcement and now I need to know what I need to watch out for… thank mark for this article I really appreciate it…

    sincerely,

    JJ Watt ( Houston Texans #99)

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