Dec. 20, 2011 -- Excessive sleepiness and unrecognized sleep disorders are common among police officers, a new study finds.
In a survey of nearly 5,000 police officers from the U.S. and Canada, about 40% of the officers were found to have at least one sleep disorder. Obstructive sleep apnea was the most frequent problem. A third of the officers were found to have this blockage of the airways that repeatedly interrupts bedtime breathing.
Researchers also found that more than 6% of the police officers had moderate-to-severe insomnia and slightly more than 5% had shift work disorders, especially those working nights.
Sleep deficits among working adults are hardly unusual, but this study shows their health effects in a high-risk occupation charged with protecting public safety.
For the study, a team of Harvard Medical School researchers screened 4,957 police officers, either online or in person. The group was a broad mix of municipal, county, and state police officers, who worked as supervisors, detectives, and on patrol. On average, they had been in law enforcement for almost 13 years.
Nearly 60% of the officers surveyed described their health as very good or excellent. But they were on the heavy side: One-third of them were obese and close to 46% were overweight, which increased their odds of sleep apnea.
The research appears in the Dec. 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Sleepiness and Public Safety
Not getting enough ZZZs takes a physical and mental toll. As is common for workers that often put in long hours with overnight or rotating shifts, this was a weary bunch: Excessive fatigue was reported by nearly 29% of the officers.
And when people get tired on the job, they tend to lose focus and make mistakes. Researchers found that police officers who had a sleep disorder reported making more administrative errors and safety violations. Fatigue also shortened their tempers, and they admitted to showing more uncontrolled anger toward a citizen or suspect.
Skimping on sleep also led to more drowsy driving, which may be as dangerous as drunk driving. Nearly half of the participants in this study admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel. For about one-quarter of them, this happened once or twice a month.
The findings also suggest that depression and burnout were more common in police officers who had a sleep disorder than in those who did not.
Robbed of shut-eye, a police officer's on-the-job exhaustion or untreated sleep condition is an occupational hazard. Because these men and women often carry guns and need to think quickly in difficult situations, these stolen hours of slumber can influence their work performance, health, and the public safety, the researchers say.