It is a commonplace of police procedurals. Somewhere around page 180, the hero detective, stymied by a lack of clues, the stupidity of his superiors and his personal failings (alcoholism, troublesome family relations, unreliable car) stays awake ruminating obsessively on the case.
Next morning, slumped fully clothed in a chair, he is woken by his mobile phone. His junior partner (junior partners in fiction never suffer insomnia) requires his immediate presence at some new plot development. Fortified with coffee, non-prescription uppers and sheer grit and determination, he struggles to make sense of the new clues in a fog of sleepiness.
And I guess that somewhere there may be Thai police officers who work much the same way. But any drowsiness they suffer will be far more widely shared than in other forces around the world because of the insane shift system that Thai police officers are forced to work under.
Since criminals, drunken motorists and married couples who disturb the neighbours with their arguing do not operate to a fixed schedule, the need for police intervention may occur at any time of the day or night. It is the quintessentially 24/7 job.
And the way the Royal Thai Police have decided to staff their stations round the clock is a miracle of modern mismanagement.
Suppose you reported your missing bankbook at your local copshop at, say, 2 pm yesterday, and then discovered that you didn’t lose it, but it was stolen and you know by who. It’s no longer a missing doc case, but a crime. So you go back at 2 pm today to report this.
You’ll be wasting your time.
First, the police have a rule that a case can only be handled by the officer that signed the first report on it. Which sort of makes sense, if that officer is readily available. And today he won’t be, not until 6 pm.
Because if he was on the midday to 6 pm shift yesterday, today he’ll be on the 6 pm to midnight leg. Then he’ll have 24 hours off and then do midnight to 6 am and the next day 6 am to midday and the next day start all over again.
Only 6 hours a shift? I hear overworked Prachatai readers cry. These, however, are just the official hours on duty. The officer, depending on conscientiousness and compulsion, may also have to appear in court, come in to hear about your was-lost-now-stolen bankbook at a time when you are also free, serve as a uniformed extra in staged re-enactments, etc.
Now there is a term ‘rotational (or rotating) shift’ in the Occupational Health and Safety literature, where it normally appears in the same sentence as ‘risks of’ and ‘medical complaints associated with’ and ‘legal restrictions on’. But these citations are normally talking about a scheduling system where an employee works different shifts, but each for an extended period. Most researchers seem to recommend at least 2 weeks on any one shift before ‘rotating’ to new working hours, and then only after 2-3 days off to give the body time to adjust.
Shift work of any kind is notorious for disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythm and the dire consequences that may follow. Even workers doing the same shift regularly, but outside ‘normal’ daytime working hours, will suffer from an increased risk of developing diabetes (men), breast cancer (women), cluster headaches, heart attacks, fatigue, stress, sexual dysfunction, depression, dementia, obesity, metabolic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, and reproductive disorders, and of worsening chronic conditions including sleep disorders, digestive diseases, heart disease, hypertension, epilepsy, mental disorders, substance abuse and asthma (just to quote what Wikipedia knows).
And they are more likely to fall asleep on the job and to have work-related accidents (something of a concern where the work involves a holster and a gun). Productivity and efficiency normally plummet on the night shift.
In other societies which recognize the need for 24-hour staffing in essential services but also manage to show some concern for the ability of these workers to a decent job, various schemes are in place to counter the negative effects of shift work. In some places, for example, ‘on-call’ shift staff like fire fighters and hospital doctors are instructed to take naps when the opportunity arises.
In Thailand, the police are simply told to ‘get used to it’. And one wonders not just how they manage to do their job, but how they manage to stay alive.
So the next time you report your bankbook as lost or stolen and the officer starts yawning, try to restrain the urge to write an indignant letter to the newspapers. He might understandably get a bit twitchy. And he does still have a gun.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).