Law Enforcement and Graveyard Shifts

The nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States are active every minute of every day. This means that law enforcement personnel need to be in top conditions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.   Shift work is a necessary and integral part of the law enforcement profession that affects all the nearly 800,000 U.S. police professionals at some point during their careers to ensure that policing services can be provided around the clock. This reality has a direct impact on the wellness of law enforcement officers. Chronic fatigue and other illnesses caused by irregular work schedules have long been a source of concern for law enforcement officers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently discussed the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study, which followed hundreds of public safety officers between 2004 and 2020, tracking their work schedules and health over the course of the project.  

What are the side effects of shift work in law enforcement?

In a recent study, participants had their heart rates, waist and neck circumference, height and weight, abdominal height, and blood pressure measured on a regular basis.   Researchers also conducted blood tests and ultrasound studies of coronary arteries, as well as analyses of bone density.   The study showed that police officers who worked mostly the night shift had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired blood flow, and metabolic syndrome. Women were more resistant to the health risks associated with night shift work, but they were more stressed by internal organizational issues than by street dangers.   Another interesting finding was that changes in the study participants’ mental health were driven less by shift work stress and more by other behavioral issues common in policing. There was a lack of organizational support for individual officers, as well as the threat of physical harm.  

How to address the problems that come with shift changes in law enforcement

Leading social psychologists researching law enforcement issues have outlined what their research suggests is urgently needed to improve police officer wellness and performance, as well as reduce police officer deaths. Health and wellness for first responders  

Shift changes in law enforcement

While smaller departments prefer eight- to twelve-hour stints, larger agencies appear to prefer 10-hour tours – and they may have found the sweet spot. Officers prefer that shift because it causes less fatigue (an extra half-hour of sleep per 24-hour period) and requires less overtime, according to Amendola.   Law enforcement officers who worked 12 hours a day were “sleepier and less alert,” she said, and eight-hour shifts were associated with five times more overtime than 10-hour shifts and three times more than 12-hour shifts.  

Officers should focus on mental and physical well-being

It’s clear that the night shift lifestyle can be detrimental to a police officer’s health. It can reduce their reflexes to respond to split-second decisions, and make them more susceptible to disease.   To address these potential hazards, officers should:

Create the optimal conditions to sleep

Having a cup of coffee or a caffeinated soda as a pick-me-up cab jeopardize the quality of sleep of a police officer working graveyard shifts. This could disrupt the deepest stages of sleep. Water is always the best option, even to address tiredness.  

See a doctor regularly

Because night shift or changing shift can affect a police officer’s health, it is important to see a doctor regularly. A medical professional can recommend blood work or other tests, that could reveal early signs of damage that, if addressed early enough, can be managed.  

Reduce or eliminate caffeine

If your bedroom is dark and has blackout shades, your brain may be tricked into thinking it is time to sleep. An eye mask provides complete darkness. Also, keep a pair of earplugs on hand in case the gardener decides to weed whack and mow in the middle of the night, or if your neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking. To reduce light exposure, drive home wearing sunglasses.  

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise will maintain a law enforcement officers in top condition, which can alleviate some of the symptoms associated with graveyard or changing shifts. Exercise should be scheduled so that it does not take place right before going to sleep, and certainly should not cut into the necessary sleep hours.  

Address sleep deprivation in law enforcement as a real problem

According to Dr. John Violanti, a former New York State trooper who heads an ongoing, extensive study of police wellness at the University of Buffalo, LEOs are four times more likely than the general population to sleep less than six hours per day, and the problem and its consequences are especially evident among cops who work midnights.   That level of sleep deprivation is dangerously close to less than five hours, the point at which people can’t function well, according to him.   According to Dr. Violanti’s study, injuries among police officers working at midnight are twice as common as those among day workers, and those officers are off duty for longer periods of time, implying that their injuries are more severe.   Officers also exhibit significantly more depressive symptoms than the general population, according to the same study. More than a third of law enforcement officers have at least some PTSD symptoms, with 10% having a “very high rate” of post-traumatic stress indicators, he said.  


Law enforcement officers tend to prioritize other people’s well-being over their own. However, it is critical to focus on one’s own health, both at a personal and at an agency level. Shift work is here to stay, and the problems associated with it require focus and special attention, to ensure that police forces across the United States are not only effective but also, and primarily, healthy.