Balancing Sleep Policies with Operational Demands

Even where codified sleep policies are in place, as in the aviation community, they may be interpreted as guidance rather than a set of mandates. Units often need to reconcile sleep policies with their operational requirements. Thus, it is not clear whether these decisions simply do not account for the negative effects of sleep deprivation or whether sleep policy is followed to the fullest extent possible within operational limitations. Moreover, it appears that some servicemembers may resist widespread or restrictive sleep policies, either because of operational requirements or because such policies do not coincide with military culture. In the words of one interviewee, sleep policies and guidance are perceived as "important and necessary [but] not the primary ingredients that create or maintain the warrior spirit."

Generally, the ability to deviate from sleep policy guidance was deemed quite important, particularly in deployed environments:

We want to be as prepared [as we can be] so that we can be successful in the mission and bring everybody home, and that tends to run into planning and preparation that eats into that rest and sleep time that we need.

Indeed, certain training activities may even require periods of sleep deprivation:

It may be necessary to shortcut policies. . . . It may be beneficial to maximize certain training opportunities, such as those that exist during "High-Light Level" time periods. . . . [These] windows may only exist for five working days per month, so capitalizing on these training periods, for the aviation community, is a must.

Although the ability to deviate from sleep policy was viewed as important, it creates an inherent barrier to encouraging or ensuring appropriate sleep across the military. For this reason, efforts to improve or enforce healthy sleep behaviors must be carefully balanced against the realities of the dynamic military environment and critical operational demands. In fact, successful efforts to change watch bill schedules on Navy ships and submarines have demonstrated that such changes must occur within the context of a comprehensive plan that takes into account the other exigencies of shipboard living and mission requirements, such as mealtimes and evening prayer, the timing of collateral-duty meetings and other administrative events, and the need for some divisions (i.e., deck) to deviate from the new schedule to satisfy mission requirements (Cordle and Shattuck, 2013).

Environmental Barriers

The operational environment itself can be an impediment to sleep health promotion. A consistent theme described some of the uncomfortable, noisy, and otherwise challenging environments in which servicemembers must try to get quality rest:

We have environments in the Navy and the Marine Corps that aren't conducive to sleep, watch rotations that aren't conducive to sleep, and people don't always pay a whole lot of attention to that.

There were also suggestions from multiple informants on how to reduce the environmental barriers to sleep, for example:

What we found is on the six [hours] on/six [hours] off [schedule], the six hours they were off, they only had the opportunity to lay down for four and a half hours, and out of that four and a half hours they were maybe lucky to get two to three hours of sleep because the environment is not conducive to that, and that's why we jumped up and down on the warfighter sleep kits—because it gave them the earplugs and the masks, [which] made it dark, made it easier for them to fall asleep.

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