Mandatory overtime and partial chronic sleep deprivation—Part 2
What role might insufficient sleep play in corrections officers’ elevated rates of depression, anxiety and suicide?
This is Part 2 of the mission-critical article on partial chronic sleep deprivation (PCSD) due to working mandatory overtime, continued from the September 2019 issue of the Correctional Oasis. It is reprinted with permission from the October 2019 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. Read Part 1 here.
By Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sleep deprivation affects our functioning in ways that are very similar to being under the influence of alcohol.
The effects on driving of being awake for 18 hours are equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. And the effects on driving of being awake for 24 hours are equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.10%. (Drivers with blood alcohol levels of 0.08% or higher are considered legally impaired in the U.S. – driving under the influence.)
No administrator would allow employees to work while under the influence of alcohol. Yet, across the nation, correctional employees, and in particular custody staff, are functioning “under the influence,” not due to alcohol intoxication, but due to partial chronic sleep deprivation (PCSD) because of working mandatory overtime (MOT) on a frequent and long-term basis.
These concerns are highlighted by the findings of a recent very large study.  Data on 110,496 college students, including 8,462 varsity athletes, were gathered from the 2011–2014 waves of the National College Health Assessment, and the statistical analyses controlled for age, sex, race/ethnicity, survey year, insomnia and depressed mood. Insufficient sleep was measured by the number of nights that students reported that they did not feel rested upon awakening. Mental health symptoms were measured by the number of symptoms reported during the prior month.
Results showed that insufficient sleep was strongly associated with mental health symptoms. Additionally, a dose-response relationship was found between insufficient sleep and reported mental health symptoms. That is, with each additional night of insufficient sleep, reported mental health symptoms increased by a certain amount.
Specifically, the results showed that with each additional night of insufficient sleep:
- Risk for depressed mood was increased by 21%;
- Risk for hopelessness and anger was increased by 24%;
- Risk for anxiety and desire to self-harm was increased by 25%;
- Risk of functional problems was increased by 28%;
- Risk for thoughts of suicide was increased by 28%.
These are highly disturbing and eye-opening findings, as they show that our brain’s health is critically dependent on getting sufficient sleep.
If insufficient sleep has such a detrimental and cumulative impact on young, healthy adults, how much more might the mental health of perhaps not so healthy middle-aged corrections staff be affected by insufficient sleep?
As I stated in my article entitled “Insufficient Sleep and Mental Health Symptoms” in the August 2019 issue of the "Correctional Oasis," in some jurisdictions custody staff work mandatory overtime shifts 2, 3 or even 5 times weekly, for months and even years on end, resulting in them not getting more than 3-5 hours of sleep per day. Moreover, changes to shift schedules result in irregular sleep routines, which can affect the ability of staff to fall and/or stay asleep.
Other questions that arise are, what role might insufficient sleep play in corrections officers’ elevated rates of depression, anxiety and suicide? And what role might insufficient sleep play in a corrections officer’s outbursts of anger, hostile interactions with offenders or other staff, excessive use of force, not performing their tasks as per policy, or having accidents on and off the job?
Only weeks ago a tragic motor vehicle accident occurred that was possibly associated with PCSD due to MOT. And a high-profile inmate suicide was also linked to staff working MOT, which possibly led to policy lapses.
These examples of negative outcomes do not even take into consideration what happens to COs’ personal lives due to them being at work so much and missing out on family life. If the family unit falls apart due to their chronic absence (because they are working or sleeping when home), COs lose their most important support system, which renders them highly vulnerable to substance abuse and increases to other psychological disorders and also to suicide.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Research has firmly established that chronic partial sleep deprivation impairs physical and mental health and functioning. Yet, across the nation, custody staff often suffer from chronic partial sleep deprivation due to being mandated to work overtime on a regular and long-term basis.
In terms of the number of staff affected and the multi-faceted health and functioning impact, partial chronic sleep deprivation due to mandatory overtime work may indeed be the greatest danger to operational safety and security and to staff well-being.
To maintain the safety and security of correctional institutions, and to promote the well-being of custody staff, correctional agencies MUST make it a priority to look for ways to decrease the use of mandatory overtime. Consuming more energy drinks is not the answer.
Increased wages, benefits and resources may be part of the answer. Improved workplace culture may very well also be a big part of the answer, as it could stem the hemorrhage of new recruits quitting corrections within the first year or two.
I have had conversations with relatively new staff who told me they were going to resign due to seasoned staff being unhelpful or downright rude and hostile toward them. And I have spoken with many seasoned staff who almost bragged that they did not talk or associate with new recruits during their first year. What was their reasoning for that? The rationale they shared with me was that they had gotten tired of helping train new hires, only to have them quit in a few months.
As a result, they decided that they would conserve energy, and not assist new recruits until they were reasonably sure that they would stay with the agency and make corrections their career.
It is understandable that veteran staff, who are often already fatigued, become discouraged when new hires, whom they try to train and guide, leave the agency. And, understandably, this may make them reluctant to invest time, energy and hope in the next new employee who comes along. Yet it does not seem to occur to some seasoned staff that confronting new employees with an unfriendly and even uncivil work environment (created by coworkers – not the offenders) might hasten these new employees’ decision to leave that corrections workplace and move on to a setting where they feel more accepted, included, supported, and respected.
In addition, supervisors investing time and energy in new hires could help retain new employees. And with that comes the critical importance of perceived civility, justice and fairness of supervisors and administrators regarding employee evaluation practices, promotion practices, disciplinary practices, and staff guidance and training. As one of Desert Waters’ Master Instructors, John Eggers, PhD, often says, “People quit their supervisor, not their job.”
And opportunities for career development, for learning new skills and having opportunities to engage in new activities or to provide input and participate in decision-making, help increase job satisfaction – corrections fulfillment – and hence increase work engagement and commitment to the agency.
In conclusion, some solutions for the reduction of mandatory overtime work may be found in improved staff retention through increased pay, benefits, resources, staff development opportunities, and a positive workplace culture in terms of coworker relationships, supervisor-supervisee relationships and certain agency policies.
And now in closing here are the thoughts of a custody employee on working mandatory overtime regularly.
“Correctional officers are stressed out and stretched as thin as they can go. Officers are burned out and unhealthy and suffer because we are not allowed sufficient time to decompress. We feel like hostages. We feel like no one is listening, and that administration does not care, and that there is no end, no relief in sight.
"Some will quit. Some will make grave errors in judgment. And some will stay and keep fighting. But all of them, all of us, are wearing thin. If I feel like I am drowning if I feel like I am in a situation that is never going to change, how can I get better? At some point, you just have to let go and swallow the water.
"It doesn't matter what type of resources you have in place for your staff if they can't go home when they want to. You can tell me to hydrate and meditate and suggest that I eat better and run more, but after working back to back 16 hour shifts all I want to do is sit on my porch and talk to my family for 15 minutes before I have to sleep for 4 hours and go do it all over again.
You don't have to recognize me as a first responder. Just figure out a way that I can go home at the end of my shift. Recognize that I am doing a very dangerous and thankless job on 3-4 hours of sleep. Understand that I have been on my feet for 16 hours and I have been awake for 30. Understand that we only care about one thing and that one thing is going home.” – Corporal William Young
1. Ramsey T, et al. Dose-response relationship between insufficient sleep and mental health symptoms in collegiate student athletes and non-athletes. SLEEP, 42 (Abstract Supplement): A362, 2019.
About the author
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