First Responders Are Hardest Hit by Rising Rates of Sleep Loss

The people whose jobs most require them to be well-rested are getting the least amount of sleep. That’s bad news for all of us.

By Andrea Pisani Babich
First Responder truck

Many of the people we entrust with our safety and health care are chronically sleep deprived.  According to a recent study done by researchers at Ball State University, not only is the number of sleep-deprived working Americans on the rise, those who appear to be hardest hit by curtailed sleep are police officers and health care providers.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed responses from 15,000 participants in the National Health Interview Survey. The survey asked participants to report their sleep durations from 2010 to 2018. The Ball State researchers found that the number of people reporting inadequate sleep rose almost 5%—from 30.9% to 35.6%—during those eight years.

While those numbers indicate that sleep deprivation is alarmingly widespread, the 5% increase is less surprising in light of the increased use of digital media during those years. According to the authoritative Mary Meeker’s Annual Internet Trends report, Internet users increased their time on digital media from 3.2 hours per day in 2010 to almost 6 hours per day in 2017 with the use mobile devices representing the bulk of the increase. More status updates, Snapchat streaks, and the attendant blue light exposure, often at bedtime, mean less sleep for working adults.

Job Stress Puts Workers and Others at Risk

But most shocking in the Ball State report is the types of occupations where insufficient sleep is most prevalent. The researchers found that about half of the respondents working as police officers and health care providers reported getting an average of five or six hours of sleep each night. Other occupations in which inadequate sleep was most common include

  • Firefighters
  • Military personnel
  • Truck drivers
  • Factory workers

The Ball State researchers note than stress plays a large role in keeping these people awake at night. Police officers and health care providers report that their jobs bring them face to face with human suffering and the consequences of human behavior at its worst. The scenes they witness everyday replay in an endless loop in their darkened bedrooms every night, robbing them of the sleep they need.

And that’s bad news not just for those workers but for the rest of us who depend on them to keep us safe.

Why Adequate Sleep Matters

The consequences of curtailed sleep go far beyond feeling lousy the next day. In fact, with widespread sleep deprivation among first responders, health care workers, and truck drivers, the consequences can be deadly to those they come in contact with in their jobs.

Research shows that the short-term psychological effects of inadequate sleep include

  • Forgetfulness. Sleep deprivation impairs memory formation and sleepy people struggle to recall facts and information.
  • Distraction. It is more difficult for sleep-deprived people to concentrate on a task, whether it’s driving or tending to a dying ER patient.
  • Performance. Sleep deprivation robs people of their ability to achieve their full potential in any arena. Lack of coordination, poor decision making, and increased careless errors can undermine the most skilled professionals when they are sleep deprived.
  • Reaction times. Inadequate sleep impairs reaction times similar to the effects of drinking alcohol. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, after just one night of six hours of sleep, reaction times are comparable to those in a person with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, just below the legal limit for driving.
  • Irritability. People are more likely to feel easily annoyed and short-tempered when they are fatigued. And that affects the people they live and work with as well as the people in their care.
  • Depression. Sleepy people are more likely to succumb to the effects of stress, leading to increased risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

The long-term physical effects of chronic sleep deprivation include

What You Can Do to Stem the Rising Tide of Sleep Deprivation

The study out of Ball State highlights the fact that the amount of sleep you get each night doesn’t just affect you; it affects you and all the people around you, including your spouse and children, those you pass on the road while driving, and your patients and clients. You owe it to yourself and others to prioritize sleep and strive to sleep the recommended seven to nine hours every night.

Here are some tips to get better sleep:

  • Establish and maintain a soothing bedtime routine.
  • Allow yourself time to wind down before trying to sleep.
  • Create a cool, dark sleep environment.
  • Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and clean.
  • Avoid electronic devices including the TV at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine.

And if you work in a profession that puts you at a high risk for sleep loss, consider it part of your professional development plan to get the sleep you need. If you make the necessary lifestyle changes listed above and still struggle to sleep, consider consulting with a medical or mental health professional.

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