How do police officers and health-care workers sleep at night? Not nearly enough, a study suggests

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American workers are increasingly strapped for sleep — and the ones grappling with life-or-death decisions on the job might be most likely to get poor shut-eye, a recent study says.

About 50% of protective-service workers (such as police officers, firefighters and correctional officers) and military workers reported short sleep duration in 2018, the highest prevalence among occupation groups, according to the study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Community Health. The study defined short sleep duration as sleeping less than seven hours.

Health-care support workers — a group that includes home health aides, psychiatric aides and nursing assistants, according to the Department of Labor — weren’t far behind, at 45%. And workers in transport and material moving (for example, air traffic controllers, truck drivers and railroad workers) and production (for example, quality-control inspectors, food-and-tobacco processing workers and power-plant operators) had the next-highest levels of short sleep duration, both at 41%.

The findings are “disconcerting,” the authors wrote, “because many of these occupations are related to population health, well-being, and safety services.”

Workers in the law-enforcement and health-care fields in particular are “always living in hyperactivity mode,” said lead study author Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health science at Ball State University. “They deal with a lot of health and safety of people; life and death,” he told MarketWatch. “It’s hard to unwind when you see suicide and shootings [and] bloodshed.”

Previous research has highlighted the perils of sleep deprivation among law-enforcement and health-care workers. One 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, found that sleep disorders among American and Canadian law-enforcement officers were “common” and significantly linked to a heightened risk of negative health, safety and performance outcomes.

Another 2014 study in the Journal of Nursing Administration found that night-shift nurses who were more sleep-deprived made more errors in patient care.

“There are guidelines and recommendations on shift work and number of working hours that have been prescribed for these professions to improve worker safety and occupational health,” the present study’s author wrote.

Their study, funded by a grant from Merck Research Laboratories, analyzed data from 158,468 working adults who participated in the Census Bureau-administered National Health Interview Survey from 2010 to 2018. The prevalence of professionals getting insufficient sleep rose substantially over the study period, from nearly 31% in 2010 to almost 36% in 2018.

Other groups at increased risk for short sleep duration included racial and ethnic minorities, workers who were less educated, and those who lived alone, the study found.

Khubchandani and his co-author, James Price of the University of Toledo, suggest that working Americans’ short sleep duration might be related to “changing workplaces, greater access and use of technology and electronic devices, progressive escalation in workplace stress in the U.S., [and] rising prevalence of multiple chronic conditions.”

Prior research by the same authors also highlighted the high prevalence of job insecurity and workplace harassment in the American workforce — two factors linked with poor sleep, among other negative outcomes.

The National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, recommends that adults aged 26 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep — but one in three U.S. adults in a nationally representative 2018 study said they got less than six hours a night. A 2018 survey by the foundation also found that one in 10 U.S. adults prioritize sleep over other factors like work, fitness and nutrition, hobbies and social life.

Insufficient sleep is associated with conditions like obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How can those working in high-stress jobs with life-or-death stakes — or anyone starved for Zs, for that matter — get better sleep? “Think about how you can reduce your technology use,” Khubchandani said. “Find a creative way to manage your stress, and exercise more.” Stress reduction and exercise generally promote good sleep, as does a healthy diet. MarketWatch previously spoke with four sleep experts about their own personal strategies for getting better sleep.

Employers also play a role in keeping workers healthy, Khubchandani said, whether it’s through stress-management programs; smoking-cessation programs; or resources promoting good sleep hygiene, healthy diet and exercise.

“Employers that are willing to help employees develop adequate sleep times may increase the probability of workplace productivity, reduction in employee health-care costs, and improving workplace safety and health,” the authors wrote. “Sleep hygiene education may be one method to help employees optimize their levels of sleep and reduce a significant form of preventable harm.”