Snooze You Lose? Actually, The Opposite May Be True

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Does your agency encourage you to nap on duty?

Probably not. But your department might get better performance and you might be safer if regulated snoozing was permitted, according to well-known trainer and consultant Tom Aveni, head of the Police Policy Studies Council and a Technical Advisory Board member of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

Recent research reports offer some impressive support for Aveni’s unconventional position by documenting the health and judgment benefits of limited workplace dozing.

“Most of the egregious errors committed in law enforcement occur when officers are fatigued or dealing with low-light conditions,” Aveni pointed out in a presentation on “Surviving the Night Shift” at a conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Assn. (ILEETA). And the rotating, irregular, or extended shifts common in policing contribute significantly to officer fatigue, he declared.

“Those working rotating shifts, for example, average 5.5 hours of sleep when working night hours,” Aveni said. Because of second jobs, family obligations, or disrupted sleep patterns, some officers, at least on occasion, come to work with as little as 3 hours’ sleep, “resulting in the same level of impaired performance as ingesting the legal limit of alcohol.

“Sleep deficits may be partly recouped on days off,” but until a full and satisfying compensation occurs an officer’s “mood and performance are routinely affected.”

Given the slim, real-world probability of consistently getting sufficient sleep, naps during duty hours could help officers fight dangerous fatigue, Aveni argues, along with brief exercise breaks, proper caffeine intake, low glycemic (sugary) food consumption, and exposure whenever possible to brightly lighted areas.

“Napping is usually seen as being derelict of duty, but progressive agencies really should encourage it. It’s a healthy means of fighting fatigue, and a short nap–20 to 30 minutes–can work wonders in increasing alertness and judgment.”

Recent research studies tend to agree.

For instance, a 6-person research team at Stanford University, headed by Dr. Rebecca Smith-Coggins, studied the effects of napping on 49 resident physicians and nurses working nights (1930-0730) in a university trauma center ER. Some were allowed to take up to a 40-min. nap at 0300, while a control group stayed awake for the entire 12-hr. shift.

Napping was done in a dark, quiet room away from ER activities, with a bed and linens provided. Ninety percent of the nap subjects, whose mean age was 30, were able to fall asleep quickly (within 11 minutes) and slept for an average of nearly 25 minutes.

Before and after the shift and also after the nap period, both groups were tested for vigilance, memory, mood, and task performance. After shift, all subjects participated in a 40-min. driving simulation test to measure “behavioral signs of sleepiness and driving accuracy.”

At the end of shift, the nap subjects showed quicker reaction times and fewer lapses in vigilance, according to the study. They reported “more vigor, less fatigue, and less sleepiness” than those who had worked without napping. Moreover, the nappers were able to more quickly complete a simple job-performance task (the simulated insertion of a catheter IV) and exhibited “less dangerous driving,” although both groups showed signs of driving impairment after working overnight.

The only negative outcome evident in the nappers was a temporary worsening of memory “immediately after the nap.” This was attributed to sleep inertia, “the feeling of grogginess…that can persist for up to 30 minutes after awakening.”

Generally, “nap intervention provided beneficial effects,” the researchers noted, and planned naps in the workplace might well “promote a high level of alertness, attention to detail, and decision-making proficiency.”

[A full report of this study appears in the Nov. 2006 issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, under the title “Improving Alertness and Performance in Emergency Dept. Physicians and Nurses: the Use of Planned Naps.” A summary appears at: http://www.aemj.org/cgi/content/abstract/9/5/466.]

Aveni speculates that some officers’ moral judgment may also be improved by fatigue relief in the form of napping. Certainly the findings of another recent study suggest that morally framed decision-making can be negatively impacted by extended fatigue, which tends to affect activity in the region of the brain that plays a major role in moral reasoning.

In this study, Dr. William Killgore and colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research tested 26 healthy, active-duty military personnel after 2 sleepless nights to see whether the lack of shut-eye would hinder their ability to make decisions in the face of emotionally charged, moral dilemmas. “The findings could have implications for people who are both routinely sleep-deprived and often need to make quick decisions in a crisis,” the researchers said. That would include soldiers in combat and cops on the street.

The participants were first tested after an adequate sleep period and again after an unusually long stint (53.5 hours) of continuous wakefulness. They were given a wide variety of decision-making scenarios, including some that were highly emotionally charged, highly personal, and burdened with moral considerations.

For example, one scenario stated: “You are negotiating with a powerful and determined terrorist who is about to set off a bomb in a crowded area.” Thousands of people would be killed by the detonation. Your one advantage is that you have his teen-age son in your custody. [The] only one thing you can do to stop him from detonating his bomb [is to] break one of his son’s arms” in front of a camera “and then threaten to break the other one if he does not give himself up.” The participants were asked: “Is it appropriate for you to break the terrorist’s son’s arm?”

[All other scenarios used are described at: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/293/5537/2105/DC1.]

The researchers were not concerned with evaluating “right” or “wrong” answers-only with analyzing the decision-making process. Among other things they found that:

  • The test participants took significantly longer to decide how to react to the highly personal, morally charged situations when they were sleep-deprived compared to when they were well rested. This suggests that fatigue “has a particularly debilitating effect on judgment and decision-making processes that depend heavily upon the integration of emotion with cognition,” the researchers concluded.
  • Sleep loss also led generally “to an increase in the permissiveness or tolerance for judging difficult courses of action as appropriate,” the study found. Only participants with above-average “emotional intelligence,” the ability to empathize and interact socially with other people, showed resistance to being influenced by sleeplessness in this regard.

Such findings “may have implications for those in occupations” frequently associated with sleep loss “and in which real-world moral dilemmas may be encountered…. When sleep deprived, such personnel may experience greater difficulty reaching morally based decisions under emotionally evocative circumstances and may be prone to choosing courses of action that differ from those that they would have chosen in a fully rested state,” the study report states.

“The implications for police work, where life-and-death decisions must often be made in crisis mode, is obvious,” Aveni recently told Force Science News.

[A full report of this study can be found in the journal Sleep, vol. 30, #3, 2007, under the title: “The Effects of 53 Hours of Sleep Deprivation on Moral Judgment.” For an abstract, go to:

http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?citationid=3172 .]

A third recent study concerned an important health benefit of napping.

A team of Greek and American researchers, headed by Dr. Androniki Naska of the University of Athens Medical School, confirmed that people who take at least 3 naps a week lasting 30 minutes or longer cut their risk of dying from a heart attack by 37 percent.

The study followed more than 23,600 originally healthy men and women for more than 6 years. Even those who napped only occasionally had a 12 per cent lower coronary mortality rate than those who never napped. Men who were working seemed especially to benefit.

Napping, the researchers said, appeared to reduce stress, and “there is considerable evidence that both acute and chronic stress are related to heart disease.”

[A full report of this study appeared in Archives of Internal Medicine on Feb. 12, 2007, under the title “Siesta in Healthy Adults and Coronary Mortality in the General Population.” A summary can be found at:


“Police agencies need to start looking at napping as a restorative, preventive measure, as something that can prevent serious errors,” Aveni says.

“Other measures for fighting fatigue tend to be transitory. Rolling your squad car window for a blast of cold, fresh air may perk you up for 2 to 3 minutes. Taking an exercise break where you do jumping jacks may buy you a half hour’s benefit. But with a nap of at least 20 minutes, you’ll see a pronounced improvement in performance, in vigilance, in eye-hand coordination that can last up to 4 hours.

“Officers forced to work rotating shifts are thrust into an unnatural work environment. In many cases, your body never adjusts to the changes in schedule. Agencies need to consider effective countermeasures for safety’s sake.”

Most agencies would understandably want to control where any officially sanctioned napping takes place, Aveni acknowledges. Inside a patrol car is not recommended, not only because of public perception but also because of discomfort, distractions, and safety.

A sound-insulated area with recliners or cots inside a police facility is more desirable, with naps scheduled in advance or permitted on request. Time should be allowed, he says, to counteract sleep inertia upon awakening with mild exercise before heading back on patrol.

Napping could become a collective bargaining issue in the future, Aveni believes. But today, he admits, he knows of no department with an official pro-napping policy.

The precedent is there, however, in industries like trucking, railroading, and aviation. A New York company called MetroNaps has started marketing customized napping “pods”–7-ft.-long, hooded recliners with headphones, temperature controls, and lights that dim–to corporations willing to be on the cutting edge of a new trend.

Reflecting on other hazardous occupations where “preventive napping” has become part of the culture, Aveni notes: “If we held law enforcement to civilian standards, this would be a very different profession.”

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