Police sector: Shift and night working

Author: Virginia Matthews

We look at how shift and night working operates in the police sector and some of the initiatives aimed at reducing the potential negative impact of such working patterns.


Shift and night working are an unavoidable consequence of the 24/7/365 nature of policing. However, with mounting evidence that they can wreak havoc on mental and physical wellbeing, the police force's once-accepted stance that such working patterns are inevitable is now subject to challenge.

Impact of shift work

Related resources

The NHS health survey for England 2013 found that "shift workers were more likely to report general ill-health, have a higher body mass index (BMI) and increased evidence of chronic diseases such as diabetes".

So-called "shift work sleep disorder" or SWSD can affect overall physical and mental health in a number of ways, according to the Sleep Charity. Defining SWSD as a "circadian rhythm sleep disorder" affecting people who work "non-traditional hours", it notes that lethargy, irritability and inability to concentrate are among the most common symptoms, together with excessive sleepiness and depression. Shift workers can suffer "chronic sleep deprivation, which has serious implications on health, productivity and safety".

The National Sleep Foundation describes an individual's circadian rhythm as "a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of [the] brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals".

The Police Federation's 2018 demand, capacity and welfare report found that 64.4% of officers "had found it difficult to carry out certain duties and tasks at work because they had been too fatigued", while 67.8% of respondents agreed that "current levels of fatigue amongst my colleagues pose a significant risk to officer safety".

It is highly likely that the negative impact of night and shift working on long-term wellbeing and performance is a major contributor to these findings.

Extent of shift and night working

With the exclusion of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and specialist personnel, shift working is near-universal among the over 200,000 officers and staff who make up the current police workforce.

Exemptions from shift and night working are considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, medical advice might indicate that shift and night working would be detrimental to an individual's physical or mental health. Personal circumstances, such as an officer being a single parent, might make shift and night working impossible.


While extensive psychological screening at the point of entry is mandatory for firearms personnel, hostage negotiators and the family liaison staff who deal with the aftermath of murders and fatal road collisions for example, there is no such safety net for routine response officers who might also have to deal with difficult situations at any time of day or night, often with little notice. This, says Simon Kempton, the Police Federation's operational lead, "should and must change".

Shift patterns

Among respondents to the Police Federation's 2018 demand, capacity and welfare report, the "most common shift pattern (48.2%) was 'Rotating shift pattern including nights,' while nine hours was the most common shift duration (29.9%)".

Shift patterns in the service can be complex but one of the most popular is the so-called "222" arrangement, according to the College of Policing. This is where officers work two early shifts, two late shifts and two night shifts, often followed by three or four days off for recovery. Other options include fixed shifts, which can be permanent rosters on the same duty (for example an officer works days only, or nights only), with either fixed or rotating rest days.

Time and tide

Many forces use "tidal" rotas, which are designed to minimise the impact on circadian rhythms. Tidal rotas typically run from 7am to 3pm, 3pm to midnight and midnight to 7am and are thought to minimise harmful effects on the body clock by moving forward in time each day. How long officers work on one shift, before moving on to the next, will depend on the resourcing decisions made locally by the relevant force.

However, a "tidal" shift pattern could result in a rest day being truncated or absorbed into the gap between shifts (for example if an officer finishes one shift at 7am and then works the next shift from 7am to 3pm the following day). This problem would be compounded for officers who have to travel a considerable distance to work.

... in the past five years the biggest single cause of sickness absence has switched to problems such as PTSD, depression and anxiety, which are directly linked to shift working.

Simon Kempton, Police Federation

Drop back

To Simon Kempton of the Police Federation, the practice of "drop back", where officers and staff are expected, at very short notice, to abandon rest days and cover gaps in 999 services for example, has made the shift situation "far worse than ever before".

"In the past, sickness-related absence has tended to concentrate on musculoskeletal problems, but in the past five years the biggest single cause of sickness absence has switched to problems such as PTSD, depression and anxiety, which are directly linked to shift working," he says.

"Officers are literally breaking down emotionally as a direct result of prolonged disruption to their sleep and it's causing many highly valuable individuals in the middle of their careers to quit the force prematurely."

Only human

Kempton believes that extreme tiredness at work can profoundly affect relationships with the public. "Our own studies have shown a direct link between brutal shift patterns and irritability and this will inevitably spill over into our dealings with people on the street. Police officers are, after all, human beings just like anybody else."

While he acknowledges the need to protect the public at all times, Kempton believes a rethink is now urgent.

"Psychological screening of officers at point of entry, including their suitability for prolonged night-time working, would allow chief constables to identify potential issues before they arise and if necessary, adjustments to working patterns could quickly be put in place," he believes.

Screening and privacy

An alternative view comes from Ian Hesketh, wellbeing lead at the College of Policing, who questions the impact of more detailed health screening on candidates' privacy.

"If you, in effect, vet job applicants in terms of their long-term suitability for shift work, you run the risk of excluding some really good candidates at a time when recruiting more officers is already a significant challenge," he argues. "I would also say that too much investigation of a psychological nature runs the risk of being seen as unnecessarily intrusive by many candidates."

Workforce resilience

Andy Rhodes is chief constable at the 6,000-strong Lancashire Constabulary and wellbeing and engagement lead at the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), where his brief is to develop new approaches to workforce resilience.

He shares the Police Federation's view that reforms to shift working are long overdue, adding that they are becoming a "make or break issue" for the entire force.

We need to modernise and to stop doing things just because they've always been done in a certain way and that includes normalising the chronic lack of sleep.

Andy Rhodes, Lancashire Constabulary and NPCC

"We need to modernise and to stop doing things just because they've always been done in a certain way and that includes normalising the chronic lack of sleep," he says.

Sweating the asset

"The fact is that human beings are not supposed to be awake and wrestling dangerous criminals to the ground at 3am and while the 24/7 nature of policing demands we work nights, we must no longer sweat the asset by compromising rest days without acknowledging the serious impact this can have on our people."

Chief constable Rhodes believes that the current Government's planned 20,000 uplift in officers over the coming three years requires radical new thinking, particularly around the need for better work-life balance.

"These new response officers may be predominantly young and may hate the idea of working at night altogether," he says. "While they need to understand that shift working is an integral part of the job, it can, I believe, be done in a way which allows us to minimise harm to officers."

In the coming months, Lancashire Constabulary will trial a number of new arrangements, including a semi-permanent shift system, which will see officers working for six months predominantly on days, followed by a further six months spent largely on nights.

"My understanding from sleep science is that it is the constant switching from one shift to another for very short periods which causes most harm, while long periods on one shift allow our bodies to adapt over time," he says.

Buy five, get one free

Lancashire Constabulary is also considering trialling an Australian experiment that sees officers paid for 32 of their weekly 40 hours for five years, before being entitled to a sixth year off on full pay. Officers are free to make up the unpaid eight hours each week via standard overtime arrangements and there is no loss of pension rights.

Losing rest days

While the police regulations and working time rules provide for rest periods, these cannot always be honoured when an emergency incident arises.

Chief constable Rhodes reports that, while in former times rest days were "considered sacrosanct", this is no longer the case.

"Shift working may be inevitable in the job, but it is unacceptable for my officers to have to call in sick because they are literally too tired to come to work. That, sadly, is the situation we currently find ourselves in and it cannot be allowed to continue."

While he notes that every force has its own approach to managing unpopular shifts, he adds: "I can guarantee that if we in Lancashire hit on a solution which works for officers and for public safety, it will spread like wildfire around the service."

Wellbeing Hampshire style

Hampshire Police piloted one of policing's first psychological screening programmes in 2012. It is rolling the scheme out across the region in a three-year expansion programme.

Although the screening does not specifically highlight shift work, deputy chief constable Sara Glen explains that: "We know that officers and staff are feeling stretched and sleep deprived. So, as part of our focus on wellbeing, we are looking at sleep patterns and exploring how we can embed a rest and recovery mindset."

... as part of our focus on wellbeing, we are looking at sleep patterns and exploring how we can embed a rest and recovery mindset.

Sara Glen, Hampshire Police

"We have committed to delivering a number of workshops which give an insight into sleep and recommend coping strategies to augment the negative impact."

However, Ian Hesketh of the College of Policing believes there is still much work to be done in rethinking the force's traditional attitudes to shift work.

"The truth is that we are struggling to get a baseline when it comes to the harm being done by chopping and changing hours and rest days," he says.

"While we are aiming to be able to spot the people who are struggling as early as we can, every day in policing is different and we will always need to maximise numbers when the unexpected happens."

No quiet nights nowadays

In previous decades, officers were virtually guaranteed quiet nights during the week, but this has changed, Hesketh says. "In our 24-hour society, day shifts and night shifts are very similar nowadays and there really is no such thing as a quiet night anymore."

To say that shift working remains a highly contested area throughout the service would be an understatement.

Ian Hesketh, College of Policing

Although Hesketh believes that extended shifts and, as a consequence, out-of-sequence rest days have become accepted practice in policing, there is, he says, little agreement on how to prevent their use.

While a shorter standard working week of, for example, 36 hours, could be a long-term solution, particularly if "a degree of choice over hours is written into the system", this is not feasible at present, he believes.

In Hesketh's view, most officers prefer longer shifts of up to 12 hours for three days, followed by a "decent slug of rest days", but this is a pattern that "simply doesn't chime with the current needs" of the job.

"To say that shift working remains a highly contested area throughout the service would be an understatement," he adds.

Adapting to shift and night work

With sleep science continuing to mature, the College of Policing hopes that its current collaboration with researchers at universities in Washington and Canada will offer more clues into how the human body can adapt to working while the rest of the world rests.

In the meantime, there is advice available on alleviating the impact of shift work. The Health and Safety Executive guidance on Hints and tips for shift-workers points to the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices that may make working shifts easier.

The Sleep Charity has also published sleep hygiene guidelines aimed at improving good sleep health, and recommends, for example, more daily exercise and a reduction in caffeine-based drinks.

The charity Wellcome has sponsored Night Club, an information and advice service for night workers delivered through a collaboration between researchers, public engagement specialists and commercial partners and that could be available to other partner employers in future.

More information needed

For Professor Cary Cooper, who co-founded the National forum for health and wellbeing at work, coalface focus groups are an obvious way forward.

"If you ask chief constables whether flexible shifts are compatible with the demands of the job, they will tell you that the queue of officers willing to work nights may be uncomfortably short," he says.

... we need far more detail of precisely how the current system is affecting individuals' emotional and physical health ...

Cary Cooper, National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work

"But with some forces already carrying out wellbeing audits, we need far more detail of precisely how the current system is affecting individuals' emotional and physical health and whether the stresses are being compounded by intransigent line manager attitudes perhaps."

"We may well uncover tough attitudes suggesting that officers know what's expected of them before that they join up and stuff about unsociable working being non-negotiable, but that's only part of the story."

"The fact is that we need more officers to keep us safe and anything that harms police retention and recruitment needs to be examined and tackled as a matter of urgency."