Officer Work Hours, Stress and Fatigue

Law enforcement officers commonly work extended hours in ever-changing environments that can cause great mental and physical stress.

Enduring fatigue for a long period of time may lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, a health problem characterized by extreme fatigue that does not improve with bed rest and continues to worsen with physical and mental activity.

Fatigue can:

  • Impair an officer's mental and physical ability.
  • Create a cycle of fatigue. 
  • Limit job performance.
  • Damage an officer's health.

Cycle of Fatigue

Fatigue arises primarily from inadequate sleep — both the quantity and quality of sleep. See Law Enforcement Officer and Sleep Disorders.

Officers get inadequate sleep when they experience a break in their circadian rhythms, the sleep/wake cycle all living organisms require to maintain good health.

Circadian rhythms impact a person's biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes. External cues such as daylight or noise help modulate a person's circadian rhythms, generating a series of internal responses that cause sleeping and waking. Changes in external cues can effect a person's mental and physical disposition — one common example is the experience of jet lag.

Continual breaks in circadian rhythm can cause serious mental and physical fatigue. This fatigue diminishes people's mental and physical health, and impairs their ability to deal with stressful situations. For police officers, this gives way to a cycle of fatigue that decreases their ability to perform their job effectively.

Causes of Officer Stress and Fatigue

Enduring stress for a long period of time can lead to anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a psychological condition marked by an inability to be intimate, inability to sleep, increased nightmares, increased feelings of guilt and reliving the event.

For law enforcement officers, stress can increase fatigue to the point that decision-making is impaired and officers cannot properly protect themselves or citizens.

Factors That Can Cause Stress and Fatigue for Law Enforcement Officers

Work-related factors might include: 

Individual factors might include:

  • Family problems.
  • Financial problems.
  • Health problems.
  • Taking second jobs to make extra income.

How Fatigue Affects Health

Fatigue can harm an officer's mental health by:

  • Increasing mood swings.
  • Impairing judgment.
  • Decreasing an officer's adaptability to certain situations.
  • Heightening an officer's sense of threat.
  • Increasing anxiety or depression.
  • Increasing the chances of mental illness (e.g., officers may develop post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder).

Fatigue can harm an officer's physical health by:

  • Reducing eye-hand coordination.
  • Causing an officer to gain weight.
  • Causing pain (e.g., backaches, headaches).
  • Making an officer unable to relax (e.g., cause restless sleep, provoke heightened alert response).
  • Causing gastrointestinal problems (e.g., loss of appetite, abdominal distress or ulcers).
  • Damaging the cardiovascular system (e.g., causing heart disease, arteriosclerosis or congestive heart failure).

Preventing Office Fatigue

Law enforcement officers usually do not speak up about how stress affects their lives. Most departments have an unspoken code of silence about the stress and strain that comes with police work. For most officers, the work ethic and culture of law enforcement appears to accept fatigue as part of the job.

Additionally, managers do not always see how overtime causes work-related injuries and accidents. And many police officers are willing to risk their health because overtime provides additional income.

Some police agencies are trying to avoid officer fatigue by:

  • Encouraging officers to engage in physical activity.
  • Encouraging officers to take time away from work.
  • Avoiding mandatory overtime hours.
  • Discouraging officers from taking on second jobs or moonlighting.
  • Creating schedules and policies that minimize overtime and shift rotation.
  • Using technology or policies that reduce overtime. These technological changes might include:
    • Using laptop devices in cars to write reports.
    • Using a "call in" reporting system to deal with certain calls for service.
    • Allowing officers to process paperwork on calls for service at a later time.
Date Modified: August 13, 2012