Trying times for law enforcement may call for alternate work schedules

Changing people’s work schedules is a significant disruption to not only their lives but their families as well


Police chiefs nationwide are facing challenges filling vacancies created by a higher than usual departure of officers due to in part recent civil unrest and a perceived lack of support for law enforcement from community leaders.

In Minneapolis, a Twin Cities personal injury attorney claims to represent 175 officers who are filing for disability benefits due to PTSD or other mental health issues. Departments such as Seattle, Dallas and Atlanta are experiencing similar issues. Staffing shortages can be addressed by overtime or alternate work schedules, but police leaders must review several considerations before implementing shift changes. 

Shift shortages

Many departments rely on covering shift shortages by having officers work additional shifts on an overtime basis. For sporadic incidents this is fine, but for long-term shortages, this can cause officer fatigue that can be harmful to the officer and dangerous to the community.

Studies suggest that being continuously awake for 17 hours can impair a person’s skills similar to a blood alcohol content of 0.05%; being awake for 24 hours is comparable to having a 0.10% BAC.

Chronically working in a fatigued state can make it difficult to meet family obligations. According to a Cornell University study, working more than 50 hours per week caused a dramatic increase in family conflicts. This extra family stress can cause poor attitudes, higher use of sick leave and job turnover.

12-hour shifts

These concerns may hold true with working 12-hour shifts. Often officers do not just work 12 hours and go home. They may be dispatched to a call at the end of their shift that ties them up for a few hours.

Working the night shift has its own issues, working all night and then going home for a few hours of sleep before you need to wake up and go to court or having to stay up with a sick child.

A comprehensive study on the benefits of different work schedules, warned employers there was a significant reduction in alertness for employees who worked 12-hour shifts and if departments decide to implement this schedule, officers should be closely monitored for signs of fatigue.

10-hour shifts

Ten-hour shifts do not present the same concerns as 12-hour shifts. Obviously, working two hours less provides officers with more time for sleep, family commitments and other responsibilities, but it also results in less overtime.

Most law enforcement agencies operate on a 24/7 basis and since 10-hour shifts do not divide into 24 as well as 8- and 12-hour shifts, there is going to be some overlap. If your agency frequently holds officers over to complete calls or finish paperwork, 10-hour shifts may substantially reduce this type of overtime.

Working 10-hour days is not without other concerns. Working longer days means working fewer days, which may result in poorer communication between officers and their supervisors. Working fewer days creates more opportunities for officers to look for secondary employment instead of using their off time to recharge.

Research has shown officers working 8-hour shifts average three times the amount of overtime as those working a 10-hour shift and five times as a 12-hour shift.

Rotating shifts

Rotating shifts are, for the most part, unpopular. Although there is not an abundance of information on law enforcement agencies, there has been studies on rotating shifts for full-time healthcare workers. Only 3.3% of healthcare workers work rotating shifts. Rotating shifts can be hard on the body’s natural circadian cycle or ability to regulate the daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness, but also home life, especially if the officer has younger children.

If the decision to go to a rotating shift is made, most researchers agree if the rotations are short it can be impossible for the body to adjust since it takes about two weeks on average to adapt to an 8-hour sleep cycle change. A forward rotation, working days, afternoons and then nights is better tolerated by the body and causes less fatigue than a backward rotation.

Policy

Being rested and clear-headed is critical in policing. For this reason, sheriffs and police chiefs should consider establishing policies to mitigate officer fatigue such as limiting the number of extra hours an officer can work in a day, week or even a month. This should include outside employment since it does not do much good to have set limits on overtime and then allow the officer to work at a second job that exceeds that number. Scheduling software that allows for tracking all of these metrics can be really helpful here.

[Want to know more about staff scheduling software? Click here to download our buying guide.]

There is not a magic number on the “safe” amount of overtime a person can work, other factors such as age or gender come into play but there have been studies that demonstrate working more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week consistently result in higher health problems.

Changing people’s work schedules is a significant disruption to not only their lives but their families as well. Before making such a change, many factors must be considered.

NEXT: Fighting fatal fatigue in law enforcement

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