LANDSTUHL, Germany - Seven hours of sleep a night is recommended for adults by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. While 24/7 operations in the Army make shift work a necessity, this also affects the body's circadian rhythms which signal the body when one should feel alert or sleepy.
To help service members and leaders understand the effects of shift work on sleep, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew Rodgers, officer in charge of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center's Sleep Disorders Center, gave a presentation to Soldiers with U.S. Army Signal Activity Kaiserslautern, 102nd Strategic Signal Battalion, at LRMC, Jan. 8.
"(Shift work) is absolutely mission essential for us," said Staff Sgt. Darrel Zirk, a multichannel transmission systems operator with USASA-K. "The training might help give leaders a little consideration with regard to shift workers' sleep schedules, because we're always fine tuning our operations and trying to make it better for shift workers."
USASA-K operates the largest Army-operated satellite communications facility outside the continental U.S, which provides internet services via satellite on five continents and across three oceans, making shift work vital to operations.
In 2018, the Army led the four military branches in sleep disorders among its members, averaging 15.9 percent of the total force being diagnosed with at least one sleep disorder (sleep apnea, insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders among others.), according to the Defense Department's 2018 Health of the Force report. The report also states lack of sleep can impair cognitive function, decreasing performance and increasing the risk for injury and accidents. Insufficient sleep is also associated with a number of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression.
During the presentation, Rodgers discussed the importance of sleep on the human body, work consequences, human error due to fatigue and different shift work models.
Some recommendations to boost sleep hygiene include ending shift work at 11 a.m. or 11 p.m. and employing risk mitigation strategies such as napping before driving.
According to Rodgers, changing shift schedules to later times may increase the efficiency of shift workers in more than one aspect of their lives. On their days off, shift workers tend to go back to their normal sleep schedule, said Rodgers. Instead of shifting sleep schedules by 12 or nine hours (with current shift changes at 6 or 7 a.m.), it's only shifting two to three hours (if changes occurred at the 11th hour), which may not be as impactful.
Although Zirk's section doesn't work night shifts, they do have to consider the uncommon schedules when planning training and operations for the unit.
"I think part of the main takeaway is what you should or shouldn't be doing when you are off (shift)," said Zirk. "Making sure you set time away for distressing, using melatonin if you have to, just doing what you can to make it as painless as possible."