May 27, 2024

Summary: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reveals persistent sleep deprivation among US service members, with many not meeting the Department of Defense’s recommended seven hours of sleep. Despite efforts, including the inclusion of sleep readiness in Army manuals and the use of biometric data from wearable devices to monitor health, challenges remain. The report links inadequate sleep to decreased military performance and increased accident rates. Recommendations include delegating responsibility for promoting adequate sleep to leadership, highlighting the need for structural and cultural changes to combat fatigue in the military.

Key Takeaways: 

  • The Government Accountability Office report highlights that a majority of active-duty soldiers report getting six hours of sleep or less per night, far below the Department of Defense’s recommended seven hours.
  • Sleep deprivation has significant effects on service members’ cognitive, emotional, and physical capabilities, contributing to deficits in crucial areas such as marksmanship, decision-making, and increasing risk behaviors.
  • The Army has explored using biometric data from wearable devices to monitor service members’ health, including sleep patterns. However, the report notes that the cost may prevent wide implementation, and even existing sleep policies do not always ensure adequate rest for soldiers.

Service members are not getting enough sleep and are reporting poor sleep quality, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

According to the report, the US Department of Defense (DOD) has administered surveys on service member fatigue for over a decade, consistently finding that service members report not getting the DOD-recommended seven or more hours of sleep each day or report getting poor quality of sleep.

During the past five years, just over one-third of active-duty soldiers surveyed in the most recent Army Health of the Force report said they got seven or more hours of sleep a night, and the majority reported six hours of sleep or less, according to data cited in the Government Accountability Office report.

For this most recent report, the Government Accountability Office surveyed and incorporated responses from 190 officers serving in military occupations that are highly likely to experience fatigue.

Efforts to Combat Sleep Deprivation

The Army has taken several steps to address fatigue, including adding a section on sleep readiness in its Holistic Health and Fitness field manual published in October 2020, also known as FM 7-22, and issuing guidance for soldiers with specific jobs, such as air traffic controllers and vehicle operators.

Sleeping less than seven hours a night can have “significant effects on cognitive, emotional, and physical capabilities that directly affect military performance,” including “deficits in marksmanship, physical training, decision-making, and risk behavior,” according to a DOD survey from March 2021 cited in the report.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Safety

Fatigue or lack of sleep caused 8% of the Army’s tactical vehicle accidents between 2010 and 2019, according to a July 2021 Government Accountability Office report cited in this recent report.

Even when Army jobs have sleep requirements, they do not always translate into adequate sleep for soldiers. Looking to the future, wearable devices can proactively address sleep and related health issues. One example cited in the Government Accountability Office report was the Optimizing the Human Weapon System program, which analyzes biometric data from wearable devices, such as sleep patterns and heart rate variability, to flag service members who may need supporting services or wellness checks.

Monitoring and Recommendations

“The program has demonstrated an ability to preemptively detect personnel hazards,” according to the report. “In one instance…program analysts detected an irregular sleep pattern from the wearable device worn by a soldier deployed to Afghanistan. This analysis prompted a wellness check by health officials embedded in the unit, and the soldier was found to be having suicidal thoughts, allowing Army health personnel to connect the service member with lifesaving resources.”

However, the Government Accountability Office report also says that these programs may be too expensive to be implemented across the force.

Among other recommendations, the report indicates that the service secretaries, including the secretary of the Army, should delegate responsibility for promoting adequate sleep among service members to leadership in accordance with DOD Instruction 1010.10, which includes steps to mitigate troops’ sleep deprivation and promote healthy sleep strategies.

“Fatigue and sleep deprivation among active-duty service members continue to be more the rule than the exception,” the report found. “Minimizing sleep deprivation and reducing fatigue for service members is a significant undertaking that will involve structural and cultural changes across the department.”

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