Could our use of rotating shifts aboard our ships be counter-productive? One study suggest it is – and that there is a better way.

My former company officer, a Marine charged with developing and leading 150 midshipmen, once commented that rack-time was the goal of every midshipmen. While he was joking, it’s true we, as much as anyone else, enjoy being rested.

Last summer I shadowed enlisted members aboard a destroyer. It was my introduction to rotating shifts, where on a daily basis sailors rotated the hours they stood watches and slept.

Tasked with maintaining and operating a platform worth hundreds of millions of dollars, these sailors were always suffering from lack of sleep. As I remember, sailors could have a 0000-0400 watch then wake up for reveille at 0630. With the ship preparing for INSURV, no sleeping was permitted from reveille to 2230. Thus, there was always a duty section of fatigued sailors.

The Study

In 1988 Dr. Charles Czeisler and colleagues at the Center for the Design of Industrial Schedules conducted a sleep study of the Philadelphia Police Department. They reported astonishing results. Noticing that long, erratic work hours and shift work left police officers overly fatigued, he induced the Philadelphia Police Department to implement a new shift schedule. The result: a 21% drop in personnel falling asleep at work and an astounding 20% reduction in on-the-job motor vehicle accidents. Interestingly, daily alcohol usage dropped  from 17% to 9%.

These are miraculous numbers for something as basic as adjusting the work schedule. One key change was a reduction in the number of shift changes from once every 8 days to once every 3 weeks. The sailors onboard my ship rotated their watches every day!


This study demonstrates getting the proper amount of sleep is a safety and performance issue. It also suggests the role of the commanding officer includes balancing crew rest and combat readiness.

Have we considered mandating that sailors receive 8 hours of sleep before reporting for duty, like aviators? Perhaps the Navy could provide COs, officers, and chiefs with more information on the impact of personnel scheduling and rest. Armed with this information, COs, officers, and chiefs can be more informed when determining the watch standing rotations

The submarines I have spent limited time on do not hold morning formation and operate efficiently. My destroyer held morning quarters formation for all hands, which disrupted the sleep of those who stood the midnight watch. Is morning quarters really worth this interruption?

Looking to the Future

I contacted Dr. Bryan Vila, a sleep and performance expert, from Washington State University about this study. He noted that the military “has been a critical source of leadership nationally” on the importance of sleep. In fact, he is currently building a lab concerned with fatigue issues with grants from the Office of Naval Research.

Any thoughts on how we can improve our scheduling or are we already doing the best we can? I also wonder if there are additional studies that would provide further guidance to COs on the watch scheduling?

Dr. Vila’s review of Dr. Czeisler’s study can be found in the September 2006 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

This post has been edited to correct that Dr. Czeisler’s performed the study of the police department, with Dr. Vila providing a review of it in 2006.

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Navy

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  • SSG Jeff (USAR)

    6 and 2 rotating schedule sucked (that’s the 8 day one I expect). I have no idea how the Navy survives 2-2-2 and 80s onshore, much less what they might try on the ships.

  • SWO JO

    We recently completed a deployment with a 4 section, chow to chow, 6 hour watch rotation. Sections stood a particular watch for roughly 3 weeks at a time. The midwatch was still a challenge, but most people found that 6 hours of regular sleep at the same time was much better than more total time staggered unevenly due to a rotating watch.

    It was certainly an issue to adjust the daytime schedule to allow for the midwatch to rest, but everyone else (particularly Noon-1800) was in much better shape to stand the watch. There were many fewer “thousand yard stares” on the mess decks and in the wardroom. I would also say that it increased our operational effectiveness.

    This is a lesson for innovative COs who are willing to do something different than the traditional “5 and dime” rotation.

  • P.M. Leenhouts CAPT USN (Ret)

    I clearly remember being severely fatiqued as a JO. It was a real problem. I believe that research has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that rotating watches daily is an invitation to disaster. Anecdotally, I believe this was proven at least thirty years ago. I am convinced that many of our Service’s accidents and incidents are the result of fatiqued crews. The retort that “we’ve always done it that way and it works just fine” doesn’t cut it.

    Consequently, four of the ships in which I served used fixed rotations. Crews stood the same four hour watches port to port. The 16-20 watches weren’t dogged, just relieved for chow. 1MC announcements were minimized or not used at all except in emergencies. Watches rolled ahead during port visits. I’ve used this system in CONUS, the Med and WESTPAC; it seemed to work better than any other watch rotation I’ve experienced.

    With respect to the article, the reason surface ships hold morning quarters is, in part, to ensure no one fell over the side during the night as well as to ensure all hands “get the word”. That said, perhaps there is a better, more efficient way to ensure all hands are aboard to get the word.

  • Brine

    Jeff, Welcome to the fray, and I am pleasantly surprised to hear that my 1120 brethren compared favorably with the 1160s. Don’t be surprised if you get some push back on this topic: it’s something I see discussed daily underway by the command element (CO XO & COB), but the nature of the beast with short manning, required maintenance, and training is that someone is going to be fatigued and running on somewhere between 3 and 4 hours sleep in the last 24 hour period.
    IMHO it is not so much a knowledge problem in the navy, as a supervisor involvement challenge. Everyone knows they are less effective with less sleep, and these factors have been taught by firsthand knowledge, topics during all of my pipeline training in the submariner world, and as early as my plebe summer back in 98. The challenge is twofold: one leadership that sets the example or corrects sailors and JOs who stay up too late with recreation, and letting first line supervisors (chiefs, and division officer) intelligently decide what can be dropped off the plate in chalkerblocked [full] days. The supervising can be done both by divisional chiefs and senior watch officers as well as with some polite but firm peer pressure, but the second part is a real challenge, both in accurately assessing “how tired are they” as well as how to bring up to the ENG that the section was to tired to do an after watch training session.

  • If you go to and search for “sleep study” you can read for hours academic studies that will confirm what you perceived.

    The problem is the inertia of the leadership. Change like this needs a champion (wearing stars) to get it done.

  • This is the kind of topic where no one wants to “rock the boat”.Maybe the Medical Branches can stick their neck out with their reccommendations for the good of the Navy?In today`s war tempo ignoring this issue is like ignoring dwell time needs.Sounds like some command and career decisions!That`s why they call them “officers”.Not addressing these issues translates to a tragedy of dead sailors,something which only makes DAVY JONES and the enemy happy!This is where USNI Blogs can make a difference.If your going to fight at your best you had better be well rested{if at all possible}…….combat veteran and hospital medic.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Excellent post, Jeff. Lots of great points.

    For the larger audience:

    How do you reconcile this unimpeachable common sense with the “reduced manning initiative” of a 40-50 man uber-crew for the LCS, when that ship is either in action, in a hostile zone, or re-configuring weapons load “packages” for different missions? Oh, and what if she is damaged and requires repairs/TLC to keep her afloat and making headway?

    Just askin’….

  • jwithington

    I think Brine has some good points reminding us that not all sleep deprivation is mandatory. As I am sure CAPT Leenhouts remembers that as JO in a surface ship, emphasis is placed on getting qualified quickly.

    I met one SWO who had gotten his warfare pin in under 8 months (VERY fast). I asked him how he managed that; he replied, “Sleep is for the weak.”

    As a number of these comments point out, it is first and foremost a leadership issue. I had imagined direction coming from the CO in giving guidance on the watch standing, but I like the posts which emphasize approaching the problem with “deck plate” leadership.

    It seems, LTCOL Schwehr, that medical community is quite aware of the problem. Perhaps they could raise greater awareness, but the ultimate responsibility lies with those Navy gray and underway.

    It’s encouraging to see that some ships have figured out ways to optimize the watch standing rotation (SWO JO), but if only there was a way for this knowledge to make it’s way around the fleet.

    I, too, am very curious to see how cutting back on the crew size will play into this problem. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence about the LCS requiring intensive maintenace hours. We’ll see…

  • great first post!

  • pk

    you guys are fighting a war that airline crews, railroad operating departments and over the road truckers have been enmeshed in for years.

    so far none of them have solved it either.


  • jwithington

    I am not hoping to eradicate fatigue. However, I think we could use greater awareness of the issue in the hopes of reducing the extent of the problem. The common sentiment on being fatigued due to lack of sleep is that is simply part of the job. I think we should question this assumption as it can impair combat readiness.

  • P.M. Leenhouts CAPT USN (Ret)

    A couple of (perhaps relevant) points. First, I don’t think someone who qualifies in eight months really has a grip on what they need to know. Yes, there will be an occasional super-guy/gal, but they’re most likely rare. “Sleep is for the weak”? That kind of attitude leads to accidents. Frankly, if eight months is the “fleet norm”, then we’ve unacceptably dumbed down the SWO qualification process. Secondly, and IMO, no CO worth his/her salt needs someone with stars telling them how to run/micromanage their ship. And, third, and finally, if the DH’s think there’s a problem regarding sleep deprivation, what’s preventing them from talking to the CO about it?

  • sobersubmrnr

    On submarines, watches are six hours long with three underway watch sections. After watch, if one has work to do, they do it until it’s done or until the next watch. If not, they can go to the rack right away. This works out pretty well, all things considered (maintenance load, training and drills, etc.). I’ve been a rider on a surface ship that did the traditional four hour watch rotation with working hours underway and that sucked. The fixed six hour watches mentioned in the post above would be far better as long as surface commands went with the submarine concept of work or sleep instead of working hours. Surface ships have more personnel than submarines, so they could get away with four watch sections instead of three.

  • Excellent comments and a debate we should be having.

    Another often overlooked aspect of fatigue and mistakes at sea (or in the air) stems from nutritional failure, low blood sugar, poor diet, skipping meals, etc.

    Exercise, of course, helps both — hence the value in our gyms and work out routines at sea.

    At the end of the day, we count on our ship Captains and officers, our Chiefs, and indeed a well-informed crew itself to make sure we are balancing sleep, nutirition, excercise to stay sharp.

    Compliments to our new guest Midshipman blogger — BZ!

  • Byron

    Another factor is Circadian cycle. People are bio-engineered by evolution to be daylight animals. I’ve found that night shift is more easily accomodated by only a small fraction of people, while the rest (including myself) have to utilize “tricks” like making sure your bedroom is totally dark, turning a radio to talk radio and turning it down very low to a murmur (to drown out the much louder noise outside during daylight hours) and medication to help you sleep (like Benydryl or a mild alcoholic beverage). Also, once your eyes have seen daylight it’s very hard to get to sleep. I tried to always make sure I was out before the sun came up; if I didn’t, it was very hard to sleep.

    Sailors can go to sleep at the drop of a hat, but only because they are exhausted. I’ve seen them sleep in the noisiest environments and the weirdest locations.

    In the long run, sleep deprivation can and will kill you in the environment aboard ship. Machinery, steep ladders, slippery catwalks, the list goes on. Some sort of trade off should be arrainged before the problem becomes lethal. Personally, whenever I had to work 16 hours+ I never worked the next day. Lots of jobs, just one me.

  • FOD Detector


    ADM Stavridis appears to be the only commenter with any sort of solution; I’d add the endless cups of coffee also interrupt healthy sleep patterns.

    Adequate rest should not be an issue on today’s warships; there is more than enough manning to operate and fight the ship. But it is an issue because we’re not operating very smartly. And we’re not taking full advantage of technologies which reduce manpower demands.

  • JEB

    Jeff, good on you for getting your views out here. It’s great that you are already thinking about these things, and that you are comfortable sharing your views in a professional setting. Good luck to you as you go out to the fleet!

  • sid
  • sid

    hence the value in our gyms and work out routines at sea

    The problem there is, trying to find the time

    The crew can’t relax much, even with the ship tied up.

  • jwithington

    There seems to be a consensus that this should be dealt with by leadership onboard the ships. I just wonder if there is anyway for the Navy to remind the leadership of the value of sleep. I suppose the Naval Safety Center would head up the awareness?

  • sid

    Gotta wonder if the USS Blue missed detecting the Japanese that fateful night in August ’42 because there was no one onboard not fatigued. After all, during the intense days prior, every evolution was an All Hands affair

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Sid hit the salient point. By 9 August, crews in Blue and the cruiser column were exhausted to near collapse, and going up against an enemy highly skilled at night action. The results were tragic and predictable. And this is LONG before the days of video games and Dallas Cowboys on the flat-screen.

    Again, I will ask the general audience, including ADM Stavridis, how we reconcile these combat lessons with reduced manning initiatives to hold down operating costs?

  • VADM J. C. Harvey, Jr

    Midn Withington – thanks very much for posting on this issue. The topic is truly non-trivial and is as much an issue today as it ever has been since humans started taking ships to sea overnight.
    Reading your post brought to mind two books I recently read – Japanese Destroyer Captain and the memoirs of a RN destroyer CO during WW2.
    A common element in both books was the profound effect of fatigue during sustained combat operations, in one case almost 8 months of combat in the Solomons without relief and, in the other, prolonged periods of combat during North Atlantic convoys (the Murmansk run) and in the Mediterranean in 1943.
    Both COs were brutally honest about what they did right and what they did wrong, and what they did wrong almost always came in a period of prolonged sleep deprivation.
    [To get a visual of this issue, watch the movie “The Cruel Sea”]
    Now, the issue you raised is a related one – the impact of “excessive” fatigue during routine operations, the type of sustained underway optempo we (USN) are experiencing today.
    Part of the answer lies with the ability of every ship’s command team to organize themselves for success to the maximum extent their resources (people, equipment, etc) and training allow. In my view, no permission is required to task-organize onboard ship in order to accomplish the assigned mission. COs get to establish priorities and act accordingly (and that is tone of the truly great thing about being a CO!)
    Part of the answer also lies with higher echelons’ responsibility to 1) recognize the importance of the issue, 2) to be aware that every ship is unique (no two crews are the same) and thus different ships will require different solutions to accomplish the same mission set over an extended u/w period and 3) to be ready with supportive intervention whenever required.
    Culturally, this issue is not one we deal with very easily; we grow up professionally treasuring our “ability” to go hard for prolonged periods without adequate rest and without due regard for the consequences on performance and safety.
    Thanks for putting a fresh set of eyes on target. All the best, JCHjr

  • claudio

    Great topic, great job for a first post.

    Sleep deprivation is something that we as sailors usually take pride in. As a FR on the CORAL SEA, my “record” was 72 hours. And I wasn’t the only one, we all did it to get the job done. Years later, as an Intel Officer at the Pentagon, before and after September 11, 15 hour days followed by hour plus drive to and from work were not unusual. What most dont realize that just about every flag officer in the Pentagon up to CNO kept longer hours than I did.

    So to us sailors sleep deprivation is as familiar as the smell of salt in the air and the rocking of the ship. Its been part of our culture for so long, along with the ever increasing requirement to do MORE WITH LESS, that I think it would be extremely difficult for some skippers to adjust.

    However, with the increased visibility this issue is gathering, I believe change is coming. We have a lot to learn from other industries and hopefully, fatigue will play a lesser and lesser role in accidents.


  • Jay

    Waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the early 90s, on my destroyer (as a newly reported bright eyed Ensign, albeit with some previous sea time in merchants), I asked the SWO:”WEPS, this constant watch rotation is really bad, you can never adjust you body to it…why don’t we stand watches like in the Merchant Marines (the Mates & Engineers NEVER shift watches)?”

    WEPS: “Then no one would ever see all the evolutions necessary for qualification.”

    Me:”Then how about we rotate the watches only every two months? Over a 6 month deployment, everyone would get to participate in roughly all the evolutions?”

    WEPS: “Go away”.

    I have never seen a satisfactory anwer to this. Concur with CAPT Leenhouts post.

  • DavidB

    Forced rotating billets with such frequency is more senior officer laziness than anything else. They progress up the chain and forget from where they came.

  • Michael Junge

    MIDN Withington – great start! This topic comes up with increasing frequency. My read file has an article from 1998 on “The Need for Sleep”. This is a lesson we will insist on learning over and over – for lots of reasons. Some of them brougt out by the commenters to your post.

    First of all – Rotating watches are much more a product of numerous other issues than “senior officer laziness”.

    Not everyone wants to stand the 00-04, 22-02, 04-08, or even 12-17…or whatever watch rotation you may come up with on a regular basis.

    Abnormal evolutions, underway replenishments, general quarters drills, and even meetings defeat a fixed rotation more often than not. Having stood fixed watches in CIC those, evolutions play havoc with sleep cycles and careful scheduling can mitigate, but not remove, that havoc.

    But…what has a larger impact on fatigue than the rotating watches are inefficiency on the part of leadership AND watchstanders.

    Does the officer who stood the midwatch really need to be at Officer’s Call? Or can the non-watchstanding CPO or 1st Class cover that morning?

    What about the Daily Ops Brief? Does it need to be after dinner? Does it need to be 2 hours long? Does everyone need to be there?

    Do you really need to finish that movie or up your “Guitar Hero” score before taking the “Ten to Two”? Or is a half hour or hour nap a better option?

    In command I placed an important emphasis on sleep – for myself and the crew. And in many cases it paid off. And, there were those who took advantage of it by skipping meetings they were available for, awake for, and needed at…but chose to use rest as the excuse not to attend. And…I am certain that despite my emphasis on getting rested, that there are those who thought my words hollow and insincere – and chose to work themselves and their people inefficiently and dangerously. Even when later corrected.

    This is a HUGE cultural issue…and a Flag level advocate will not make an iota of difference. This is an issue won or lost at the E5, E6, E7, O1, O2, and O3 level…with advice and support from above…but won or lost at that level.

  • A Flag or General officer advocate is essential to make an iota of difference and it always has an impact!I believe we have seen some of that impact on this blog.I truly believe comments on the blog can very easily be misconstrued and as officers we should make every effort to debate the content of ideas presented and all of us should greet each others ideas with the mental and willfull attitude of a salute(to avoid embarrassment).Things can of course be handled at the junior officer and senior petty officer and Chief level,this shows a terrific understanding of the real world aboard ship,but I believe this is such an important issue for the fleet that it should be also addressed anew at the highest levels,as a yardstick or a warning for the Navy,as a former officer assigned to the USNR and regular Coast Guard I draw the following conclusion.There is no doubt that failure to address this issue in this time of stress and WAR will reult in shipboard accidents,more collisions at sea,groundings and loss of life.I am reminded of the WW11 FLEET ADMIRAL who was known to take a nap in the middle of a sea battle and ws quite successfull.We all learned that lesson at GTMO,I think that`s why they teach it there not to haze us but to make sailors remember and to save lives when aproaching this important issue.The infantry may not have this luxury,we can`t all meet the sleep deprivation tempo of Rangers or most special forces but the Navy has less of an excuse not to address this issue and ensure It`s crews are as well rested,well fed,and in as good a shape as possible in this time of WAR! This is a personal “Safety Recommendation for the Sea Services”based on my limited experience. ………Hospital Medic and combat veteran(for further discussion and information only pending action by appropriate higher authorities)

  • willful not willfull,and I hope all of our comments lead to a successful not successfull outcome in regards to this serious issue raised by a WEST POINT cadet.

  • Unfortunately make that an Academy Midshipman,but that I believe is the Army`s loss.

  • jwithington

    Well, unfortunately they were able to grab my brother!

    Thank you for your support on this issue, sir!