By Tracy Barnhart,
Backgate Contributing Author
Remember that one little question on your application process that stated, “Are you able to work mandatory overtime” and you marked yes because you were excited to get into the system and started on your chosen career? Looking back do you ever wish you would have marked NO? In no other profession is there such a high turnover rate requiring so much forced or mandatory overtime on its personnel. It was not uncommon for the entire third shift officers to be mandated to stay for the entire first shift 5 days a week making for an 80 hour work week. 40 plus hours of overtime a pay period was the normal not the unusual and after a while you began to hate telephone calls after 4:00 in the morning. I always wondered what the effects of the daily stress and forced overtime did to a body.
From shift to shift the correctional officer is tasked with policing this violent institutional subculture. Being subjected to this violent subculture on a daily basis is a stressor in the career and life of a correctional officer. These stressors can cause the correctional officer to experience more health issues, have a shorter life span and on average die at an earlier age than the average worker. Stress is not only harmful to the stressed officer or correctional worker but is also difficult to the profession and to the lives of others working in the institution. Burned-out officers frequently loose interest in their jobs, become passive instead of active in carrying out post and institutional orders, and let things inmates do, go without consequence. Thus harmful incidents may occur that could have been avoided if handled properly from the beginning.
Stress is not always a direct association of the inmate population. Other byproducts of the profession can cause stress and impair functioning of the correctional officer. Shift Lag is one of these byproducts. Shift Lag is when the stress and physiological fatigue of shift work causes one to become irritable, experience impaired performance, and a feeling of being hypnotic both on the job and in personal affairs
In a study published recently in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers in Australia and New Zealand report that sleep deprivation can have some of the same hazardous effects as being drunk. Getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment, posing “a very serious risk.” Drivers are especially vulnerable, the researchers warned. They found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent. That’s the legal limit for drunk driving in most western European countries, though most U.S. states set their blood alcohol limits at .1 percent and a few at .08 percent.
Many correctional professionals will attest that sleep deprivation from shift work may lead to occurrences that jeopardize not only themselves, but also other officers and inmates. Fatigue from long shifts can reduce attention to detail, affecting critical thinking and performance. Although sleep is not cumulative, sleep deprivation is. The more hours a person works, the longer it takes to complete a task. More mistakes are made, and alertness is markedly decreased. In addition to reduced efficiency, sleep deprivation slows down recovery processes and impairs host defenses, increasing susceptibility to infection. It influences the potential for developing other disorders as well. In particular, losing sleep heightens the risk for type II diabetes, moodiness, and obesity. All these ailments will in turn lead to more call offs and more need for mandatory overtime.
Shift working correctional officers affected by sleep deprivation experience a greater incidence of diarrhea, constipation, ulcers, and heartburn. As if this were not enough, their risk of cardiovascular disease is increased by 30 to 50 percent. Women shift workers are more vulnerable to reproductive problems, from disrupted menstruation and difficulty conceiving, to miscarriages and premature births. For example, 55% on midnights showed “elevated waist circumference,” more than double the percentage found in the other 2 shifts. Half had sub-desirable levels of “good” cholesterol, compared to 30% on days and 44% on afternoons, and 25% had high blood pressure, compared to 15% on days and 9% on afternoons.
Getting six or fewer hours of sleep each night is just like being drunk. Consider that most the legal blood alcohol content is .08. When you’ve been up for 18 hours, studies show that you function as if your blood alcohol content were .07. After 24 hours without sleep, you’re at 0.1 the same as a drunk driver. Now picture yourself after a 16 hour mandated overtime from third shift to first. At that point, you’re fighting sleepiness, you’re more irritable, and you have increased risk of accidents both at work and while driving. That is when you see people drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages, popping out of their chairs at work more, using physical activity to keep themselves awake.
So administrators you now have to calculate more than the financial cost of forced or mandatory overtime at your facilities. What would a legal suit bring against your agency for an auto accident following an officers 16 hour shift of mandatory overtime? What about the obvious policy violations overlooked by sleepy officers on the pod? Inmates love staff shortages because they then know that there will be a new officer working their unit, who does not necessarily care what happens as long as the shift goes off without a major incident. Staff shortages and mandatory overtime may be the number one complaint in corrections. It is like a revolving door happening, the more overtime within an agency the more call offs it creates, the more staff resignations and unplanned illnesses you have.