Do Soldiers Get Enough Sleep?

With jobs that are both mentally and physically taxing, soldiers need sleep for recovery and rejuvenation.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Many of us don’t get enough sleep, but this struggle is particularly challenging for our service members. Roughly 1 out of every 3 service members clock five hours or less of sleep each night. Compare this to the 1 out of every 12 people in the US as a whole, and it’s clear that soldiers are facing a sleep crisis.

Humans need much more sleep than five hours each night. It’s recommended for adults to get somewhere between 7 to 9 hours, and when we don’t, our mental and physical health suffers.

Soldier’s need to get a good night’s sleep to protect them from both the short-term and long-term effects of short sleep duration, the consequences of which are particularly dangerous for soldiers. While higher-ups are beginning to recognize that sleep is more important than squeezing more hours out of our service men and women, this recognition is only the first step to fixing traditions that have left soldiers facing sleep deprivation on a massive scale.

Soldiers Need More Sleep

Soldiers have demanding jobs that require them to perform well in matters of physical ability and mental performance. With research finding that being sleep deprived damages performance similarly to being drunk, the troubling picture becomes even more clear. Imagine someone who was intoxicated holding watch at night, driving tanks, or flying jets. We wouldn’t have it.

Sleep is important for:

Plus, a lack of sleep can harm our mental health and wellbeing. When we don’t get enough sleep, the levels of our stress hormone, cortisol, can rise, resulting in feelings of increased stress and anxiety.

Additionally, studies suggest that sleep problems increase the risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder: two disorders for which soldiers are already at an increased risk.

Over time, a chronic lack of sleep (often tied to a sleep disorder) can also boost your likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, and obesity.

This begs the question: why isn’t sleep a higher priority for our armed services? And what, if anything, is being done to address this systemic lack of sleep?

Why Aren’t Soldiers Getting Enough Sleep?

We would expect service members under active deployment to struggle with sleep. Not only are they often halfway across the world where their body’s biological clocks must adjust, but they may face night shifts and poor sleeping conditions. Heat or cold, sleeping in packed quarters, and frequent loud noises are just a few of the many challenges that these brave women and men face.

But what may surprise you is that it’s not only those troops in active deployment whose sleep suffers. According to a 2015 study by Rand Corporation, a troop’s deployment history didn’t impact their sleep-related difficulties.

In this study, 2,000 troops from all branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) reported their sleep habits. It was found that only 37% of those on active duty clocked the recommended 8 hours of sleep each night.

Sleep deprivation has long been an expectation for our armed forces. In fact, the military previously had something known as the “four-hour rule.” If you were part of a troop that worked in a fast-paced, demanding operational environment, it was held that you could operate on only four hours of sleep.

But it’s not only work conditions and expectations that are placed upon those in the military that hinder sleep quality and quantity. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 85% of our active duty military has been diagnosed with a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia.


Is Anything Being Done to Help Soldiers Get Enough Sleep?

With demanding jobs, sleep disorders, and conditions like PTSD, the sleep crisis that soldiers face can seem nearly insurmountable. Fortunately, it is no longer being ignored.

There are investigations which have revealed sleep deprivation to be a deep-rooted part of the culture, and many higher-ups are now recognizing that this helps neither soldier’s mental health nor their work performance.

The Army includes sleep management as one of the three pillars of focus in its Performance Triad Program, the other two being nutrition and activity. In their learning center, the Army provides many helpful articles and tools about the importance of sleep and how to work on improving your relationship with sleep.

Unfortunately, sleep deprivation and the resultant health, performance, and quality of life deficits are still a huge problem for all branches of the military. If this impacts you or your loved ones, the best steps include educating yourself and doing what you can to prioritize sleep. This might include seeing a health care specialist to help you work through the causes of your specific sleep difficulties.


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