03 February 2017

Can mindfulness practices help police workers enjoy quality sleep?

Dr Ian Hesketh and Jenny Kodz from the College of Policing, discuss some of the sleep issues related to policing and the growing body of research evidence on the potential benefits of mindfulness.

Shift patterns, working around the clock, different types of light, and our personality type all impact on our sleeping habits and wellbeing.

The time of day when a person functions at their best, or their 'chronotype,' has been a subject of burgeoning interest for scientists. Broadly split into 'larks' and 'owls', knowing your own type (or 'circadian preference') can assist you to lead a healthier lifestyle. It seems our 'circadian rhythm' is born out of our instinct to feed, hence - 'early bird catches the worm'.   The rhythm is set by our reaction to day and night (light), our 'body clock', with some of us reacting to daylight slowly (owls); and some more quickly (larks). 

It appears owls work better, harder and more creatively later in the day; larks are better in the morning. If you are somewhere in the middle you may be the perfect response officer! However, it seems our type may alter with age. Broadly speaking, the very young and the elderly take on a morning preference and teenagers are usually the opposite.

Over-riding your clock, for example to go to work during unsociable hours, may make us feel unwell, and may result in unhealthy outcomes such as sleep deprivation. This in turn may expose us to more serious health issues if continued over long periods (years).

To combat sleep deprivation astronauts have used 'blue light' to wake and 'red light' to sleep. Seemingly, these types of light encourage the brain to react accordingly, hence looking at TV, computers or tablets is not particularly helpful if you're trying to sleep.  Blue light inhibits the production of the hormone melatonin, which is released by the brain as daylight fades, inducing that drowsy feeling necessary for a good night's sleep. So checking phones or answering emails before sleep should definitely be avoided – although scientists are busy working on technologies to combat these effects.

There is ongoing research into what shift patterns fit best with various chronotypes (please see further resources at the end of the article).  This includes investigation into optimum number of nights, recovery days and so on. For now it appears getting enough hours sleep is the key in whichever timespan within the 24hr clock. Mindfulness practices may assist with this. 

Mindfulness is unavoidable at the moment. It pops up in the media all the time and is being heralded as a remedy for insomnia, an aid to focus and concentration, a technique to improve engagement, work satisfaction and productivity. It is also used to reduce stress and combat depression and anxiety by relaxing the mind and body and, in turn increasing emotional resilience.

So what is mindfulness? It is a calm and clear state of mind, the result of letting go of anxieties by simply bringing our undivided attention into the present moment. It is an open and unbiased attitude that is able to take in the bigger picture.  This is useful in a professional and personal capacity as it may result in more effective communication and better relationships, which in turn impact upon our health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness is the ability to pay full attention to what is happening 'now', with an open and curious mind. It is s a skill set learnt using a simple technique that helps us to shift our focus from what we have been doing (or will be doing) to what we are doing now, particularly useful if you want to get to sleep. 

There is a growing body of research evidence to suggest that mindfulness practices may improve sleep by helping us to develop greater focus and concentration, reduce stress and improve resilience. Medical trials suggest they can actually alter the structure and the function of the brain, which apparently has a 'plastic' quality (known as 'neuroplasticity'). This is great news because it means we can train the brain – you really can 'teach an old dog new tricks' – why not give it a try?

The Mindfulness Initiative provides some information about getting started.  Also Appendix E of the Mindfulness Initiative report lists a number of resources.   

More research needed
Despite the fact there is a rapidly developing evidence base on the value of mindfulness in the workplace, more rigorous research is still needed. Exploration of the benefits of mindfulness practices for police officers and staff and the most appealing approach to mindfulness training in policing is of particular interest. A trial of an eight week mindfulness course is currently underway in Bedfordshire Police where, as well as gathering feedback from participants, outcomes following this training are being compared with a control group. We hope to be able to share some results from this trial in a future news article.

For more information on mindfulness in policing, please contact Jenny Kodz at jenny.kodz@college.pnn.police.uk

Find out more :  Further sources of information and reading  

Shift-working and sleep patterns
Bambra, C., Petticrew, M., Whitehead, M., Sowden, A., & Akers, J. (2007) Project Final Report The Health and Wellbeing Effects of Changing the Organisation of Shift Work: A Systematic Review. Public Health Research Consortium.

Josipovic, Z., Dinstein, I., Weber, J. and Heeger, D. J. (2011) 'Influence of meditation on anti-correlated networks in the brain', Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5(183).

Mindfulness practices and interventions
Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (2015) Mindful Nation UK. The Mindfulness Initiative 

The Mindfulness Initiative (2016) Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace

Montes, M. and Williams, J. M. G. (2012) 'A Randomized Clinical Trial of Mindfulness- Based Cognitive Therapy Versus Unrestricted Services for Health Anxiety (Hypochondriasis)', J. Consult. Clin. Psychol., 80(5), pp. 817-828.

Pilcher J., Lambert B., Huffcutt A. (2000). Differential effects of permanent and rotating shifts on self-report sleep length: a meta-analytic review. Sleep, 23:155-63.

Segal, Z. V. (2013) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. New York: New York: Guilford Press.

Surawy, C., McManus, F., Muse, K. and Williams, J. M. G. (2014) 'Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Health Anxiety (Hypochondriasis): Rationale, Implementation and Case Illustration ', Mindfulness, (21st January).