5 practical sleep tips for shift workers

You need seven to eight hours of good sleep a day to stay mentally and physically healthy — here are a few ways to reliably get the sleep you need

The secretary called and had a question regarding a DWI report that I had transcribed in the early morning hours of the previous shift. I had responded to a report of a motor vehicle accident with a possible drunk driver. He had been headed into town, crossed the center line and continued on down into the ditch over a driveway, run over a telephone junction box and finally come to rest in a grove of pine trees.

It was just outside of town but I was the closest officer so I headed in that direction. To make a long story short, he ran into the woods, back up arrived, we set up a perimeter and awaited the arrival of a dog. It was summer and it was hot. After about 20 minutes of hiding, the driver came back out and surrendered. Apparently the mosquitoes were so bad that he decided jail was a better option.

The suspect was transported and I stayed on scene to wait for the tow truck to haul the now wrecked car. As I sat, a truck pulled up and the driver asked if everything was OK. I was but he wasn’t. As soon as he opened his mouth to speak it was obvious he was drunk, too.

I drove the 20 miles to the jail tested and booked the suspect then drove back to the office and started to transcribe my reports. That’s where the problem started. It seems that my report started out ok with the correct info right up until I made the arrest. The things got strange and I started documenting what I was doing on the remodel of my garage. When I was finished with the remodel description, I slipped right back into the DWI report.

Needless to say, the secretary had some concerns, and now, so did I.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Like a lot of cops, I had been burning the candle at both ends. I had a deadline on the completion of the garage and had been working every waking moment to get it done. On top of that, I was working what most would consider a lousy rotating shift. At the time (since I left that department, things have changed) we worked three days on, two days off then two days on and three days off. The chief worked Monday through Friday from 0600 to 1400. Our shifts ran from 1400-2200 and 2200-0600, except on the weekends when we work from 0600 to 1800 or 1800 to 0600. Now that shift may not sound so bad but here was the kicker. We rotated shifts every five days!

Apparently, my brain had had enough and during the transcribing of the report, I had drifted off mentally and had been so tired I hadn’t even noticed. Fortunately, I soon finished the garage and made an effort to get more rest.

Like every cop out there I had been a victim of the slow and silent enemy — a lack of sleep. Over the years I’ve learned some tricks that can help you get a good sleep.

  1. Make it dark. The darker the room you sleep in, the better you will sleep, so darken the windows. Light helps keep you awake — that’s why you seem to perk up when the sun starts coming over the horizon. An old trick I learned in the service was putting aluminum foil over the windows. If you or the chief interior designer isn’t keen about putting aluminum foil over the windows, buy a sleep mask. I know it’s not the most macho piece of equipment, but it works.
  2. Try melatonin. Take the recommended dosage of Melatonin before you lay down to sleep. It helps get you to sleep.
  3. Watch the caffeine. Caffeine is a two-edged sword. If you drink it only when you need it to stay awake you’ll require less than the officer who drinks it all the time. Stop drinking it two hours prior to when you want to go to bed. That way it isn’t keeping you from sleeping. Be cautious of where you get your caffeine. Sugar-laden drinks have their own drawbacks, including packing on all those pounds we don’t want.
  4. Eliminate noise. Buy a pair of earplugs. If you don’t like the idea of not being able to hear while you’re asleep, buy a large fan or a white noise machine to help block out noises that might disturb you.
  5. Suggest changes. If you’re truly stuck with shifts like the one I had, gather documentation and studies to show ‘the powers that be’ that the shift you are working is detrimental to your health and safety (you might add that tired cranky cops get more citizen complaints than well-rested officers!).

You need seven to eight hours of good sleep a day to stay mentally and physically healthy — don’t fool yourself into thinking that you don’t. Take that as seriously as you take wearing your vest each shift (you are wearing your vest, right?).

Shift work takes a toll on your mind and body. Lack of sleep can be a precursor to stress, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and weight control issues. It’s been known for years that it can take years off your life. Being constantly fatigued can also affect your relations with others.

I got a new job as a law enforcement instructor. I had a regular job with regular hours but it had taken me quite a while before I could actually sleep all the way through the night. It had been about three months and I was talking to my wife one day. We were laughing and joking around and she smiled at me and said, “Welcome back.”

I asked her what she meant and she said that I’d been a moody and irritable S.O.B from lack of sleep for years, and now I was finally acting like the “real” me. She was glad I was back. Be careful that you don’t lose more than just sleep.

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