Living a Normal Life on Night Shift Patrols

By Stacey McKenna

The need for 24-hour, 7-day presence in our communities can lead to fatigue and less-than-optimal performance for officers. In Colorado, most agents work some variation of a 10-hour-day, 4-day-week schedule, with each day divided into three overlapping shifts: a day shift, an evening — or swing — shift and an overnight shift.

Heather Kendall, 41, has been a police officer with the Wheat Ridge Police Department for 15 years. Early in her career, she primarily worked 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Now a detective, she has left true shift work behind. “I was much younger when I started in law enforcement and I found the shifts much easier to adjust to,” she explains. But, she went on, “I think overall… there was always a sense of being a little tired when working graves regardless of how much you were able to get. Especially in law enforcement, you are expected to get up in the middle of your night to attend court or mandatory meetings or trainings. The constant interruption of sleep can begin to wear on you after some time.”

Ross Maynard, 32, serves as a uniformed patrol officer for the Boulder Police Department. Six years into the job, he only recently left for a daytime assignment. While sleeping during the day came easy at first, he notes that it “became progressively more difficult as the years went on, and the quality of sleep also decreased.”

On top of the fatigue, the challenge of balancing sleep, shift work and normal life is especially difficult. In particular, Kendall notes, managing the strange schedule can be lonely. “Probably the most difficult thing about shift work, especially graves, is leaving for work as your family is winding down for the night,” she says. “I always had a hard time leaving and felt a draw to stay home with them. I also found it difficult on my days off, because you were expected to live a normal schedule on your days off if you wanted to see anyone or interact with the world normally.”

Given that many want to follow conventional schedules on their days off, makes sense that some experiment with ways to sleep better and stay alert. Officers try everything from sleeping pills to blackout curtains to get enough rest.

Kendall is grateful she never felt the need to self-medicate. She explains that she was “a pretty good sleeper going into shift work. So most often I was able to at least fall asleep for a few hours. I also tend to sleep more when stressed, so I think that my normal coping mechanism facilitated more ability to sleep.

Maynard, on the other hand, really struggled. During his five years working nights, he tried drinking a few beers after shift, taking magnesium — a vitamin known to help with sleep — and following a strict diet and exercise routine. But, he says, “By the end, nothing really helped, which is why I ultimately left nights.”

Tags:  Law enforcement Night Shift Police officers shift worker series Sleep Sleep & Work

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