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Mandatory overtime and partial chronic sleep deprivation—Part 1

Getting shorted on sleep on a regular basis contributes to the development of physical and psychological health conditions


Changes to shift schedules result in irregular sleep routines, which can affect staff’s ability to fall and/or stay asleep.


Reprinted with permission from the August 2019 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

At the August 2019 National Symposium on Corrections Worker Health in Boston, Mass., I presented on sleep deprivation and mandatory overtime. As this is a mission-critical topic, I am expanding on it here in greater detail.

Last week I heard a corrections employee chuckle and say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” And yesterday I was told of a case of a correctional officer who got back to work after her maternity leave and was immediately scheduled for three consecutive 16-hour days of mandatory overtime (MOT). How much sleep is she going to be getting, given that she also needs to take care of her infant child when she gets home?

Due to MOT I don’t get to see my family, as I often have to work 16 hours. My commute home is a challenge to stay awake. I have almost fallen asleep behind the wheel. When I get home, I try to go to sleep right away because I get up 5-6 hours later, sometimes less, because I am too wired to sleep due to stress and due to drinking caffeinated beverages throughout the night to stay alert. When I am mandated, I am not able to take my nighttime medication, so I fall behind in my schedule in taking my daytime meds. My health deteriorates. I am tired and irritable. At work, I am not as alert as I want to be, fighting off sleep and fatigue. I can be doing a back to back mandatory or maybe get one day in between. If I get a mandatory on my Friday, I spend one day catching up on my sleep. At times I have to call in sick to get some rest. This impacts the shift because now other officers have to be mandated to fill my position.” — Anonymous*

What is Partial Chronic Sleep Deprivation?

Many of us do not think much about sleeping less than the 7-8 hours per 24-hour cycle that most of us require to function “well enough.” And from my conversations over the years with corrections personnel of all ranks and job descriptions, I’ve noted that most are not aware of the safety and health risks and cost associated with insufficient sleep.

However, insufficient sleep – or, more formally, chronic partial sleep deprivation – is a case of “what we don’t know (and act upon) WILL indeed hurt us, sooner or later.”

The sobering truth is that getting shorted on sleep on a regular basis does in fact contribute to the development of physical and psychological health conditions.

You are not mentally prepared to work for at least 16 hours. I like to know ahead of time when I am working overtime. It is hard to work 16 hours and then get up again the next morning prepared to deal with the inmate population. You have to be able to quickly diffuse situations. I have trouble sleeping, so I am already not getting the required amount of sleep. MOT makes it worse. I also have not brought enough food to have two meals, so I begin feeling sluggish. Imagine the effects after 16 hours of dealing with various personalities. Tempers flare. Things that would not normally bother you are enhanced ten times and incidents get out of control quickly. Inmates also know when you are working overtime and they will use it to their advantage. Sometimes they purposely bait you into arguments, so that they have a reason to be disruptive.” — Anonymous*

(In fact, experiments with dogs that were well fed but were not allowed to sleep resulted in all of the experimental animals’ deaths in 17 days or less of sleep deprivation.)

More specifically, what does that partial chronic sleep deprivation mean?

Partial means that the sleep deprivation is only in part. It’s not complete and total sleep deprivation (as would be in the case of torture, for example, during interrogations, when prisoners of war have not been allowed to sleep at all).

It is chronic, that is, it has been going on for a long time – for months and, in some cases, even for years. It’s not a one-time occurrence or an occurrence over a short period of time.

I once lost three days’ pay because we had so much comp time (hour for hour, no time and a half), that we went over the allowed limit. Some staff lost even more than that. Our health suffered, our families suffered, our work suffered, but true to the correctional officers’ unspoken code, we ‘handled it.’” — Anonymous*

Sleep deprivation refers to not getting the amount and quality of sleep needed to remain healthy and to function well.

So, let us examine this issue, its consequences, and possible ways to address it.

The quantity and quality of sleep of corrections custody staff are very much a casualty when shift work and overtime enter the picture.

I emphasize quality as well as quantity, because both matter. By sleep quantity I mean sleeping 7-8 hours per 24-hour cycle – what most people need in order to feel rested upon awakening. By sleep quality I mean during sleep time being able to cycle four to six times through all four stages of sleep – Stages 1 and 2 (light sleep), Stage 3 (deep sleep) and Stage R (Rapid Eye Movement sleep). Each stage serves essentials functions. Sleeping less than 7-8 consecutive hours per 24-hour cycle will not allow for the cycling through all these stages and repeatedly.

Frequent MOT results in staff’s ‘I don’t care, I don’t have a choice to be here’ attitude. They don’t enforce rules as they should because they are run down. Due to MOT we LIVE at work. It becomes our second home. Departments of Corrections wonder why we have all these ‘overfamiliarity’ cases across the country. Not every staff gets involved with inmates because of MOT, but I believe it contributes in some cases.” — Anonymous*

Corrections employees who work overtime on a frequent basis do suffer from partial chronic sleep deprivation. In some jurisdictions, custody staff work mandatory overtime shifts 2, 3 or even more times weekly, for months and even years on end, severely affecting their ability to get more than 3-5 hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle. Moreover, changes to shift schedules result in irregular sleep routines, which can affect staff’s ability to fall and/or stay asleep. And it is often difficult for night shift workers to adapt to sleeping well during the day.

Effects of Insufficient Sleep

Our need for sleep is a biological necessity. If we consider Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sleep is at the bottom of the needs pyramid, in the same category as oxygen, water, food and suitable temperature. In other words, sleep is a non-negotiable for our existence and functioning. Higher-order needs (such as need for love and esteem) are rendered irrelevant (become of secondary importance) if the need for sleep is not being sufficiently met.

MOT makes me feel like I am running at half speed with no hope of getting caught up. It is even worse if I have had something planned or it occurs on a holiday. Loved ones do not always understand when you have to call and cancel an arranged function because you have to stay at work. There is absolutely no consideration of the officer’s circumstances when OT is mandated. The more it happens, the worse it gets. I am not sure you ever mentally recover. It is always worse the next time it happens, no matter the time in between. It is one of the reasons I left custody even though I am less safe in my current assignment. It is also one of the reasons that officers resign.” — Anonymous*

Not getting enough sleep negatively impacts brain function, mental health and physical health. Some examples of consequences of insufficient sleep are:

  • Cognitive impairments: including a decline in alertness, attention, concentration, reaction time, reasoning and problem solving, and working memory, possibly resulting in errors, declined productivity and accidents.
  • Mood disturbances: irritability, poor tolerance of frustration, anxiety, depression.
  • Physical symptoms/disease: increased inflammation (associated with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, stroke, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, elevated mortality risk); low energy; Alzheimer-like neuron changes.

Next: Part 2 of this article explores cognitive impairments and mood disturbances that have been found to be associated with partial chronic sleep deprivation, as well as suggestions regarding the use of mandatory overtime work in corrections settings.

*Anonymous staff quotes in this article were first reported in the March 2009 issue of the Correctional Oasis.

Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado.

Dr. Spinaris has been treating and training correctional employees and their families since the year 2000. She also develops wellness-related educational materials and conducts research on subjects related to correctional employee wellness.

Dr. Spinaris is the 2014 recipient of the Colorado Criminal Justice Association’s Harry Tinsley award, and the author of the books “Staying Well: Strategies for Corrections Staff,” now in its third edition, and “More on Staying Well: More Strategies for Corrections Staff.” One of the courses she authored, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™ (CF2F) received the 2016 Commercial Product of the Year Award of Excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.