What the Navy’s War on Sleep Deprivation Teaches Us about Cultural Change

A campaign to make ship drivers rest has lessons for larger-scale culture shifts.

The Navy says it has successfully shifted its surface warfare officers’ culture of sleep deprivation, leading to healthier sailors and fewer aviation mishaps. As Defense Department leaders attempts to foment larger-scale culture shifts like those around sexual harassment and mental health, what pointers can they take from the fleet?

Within SWO culture, sleep deprivation was a point of pride, Adm. William Lescher, vice chief of naval operations, told the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing Tuesday. 

“I as an aviator would get up and have my crew rest and make sure I had a circadian rhythm before I would fly,” said Lescher, a Navy helicopter pilot. “My teammates across the passageway did not have the same discipline, and there were times when, in the SWO culture, it was a point of pride to operate sleep-deprived.”

But Lescher said that military aviators weren’t getting enough sleep either. He noted the work of the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, created through the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act out of concern for an increase in military aviation mishaps. The commission identified and reported on 6,000 noncombat aviation mishaps from 2013 to 2020. While many of the mishaps could be categorized as minor, in total the incidences resulted in 224 deaths and costs of $11.6 billion. 

The report was a “wake-up call” and an “impetus,” Lescher said, for the services to make improvements. 

“There’s been a comprehensive culture change, most starkly in the surface community,” Lescher said. And he largely attributes the shift to one leader:  Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener. 

Last year, Kitchener, who commands Naval Surface Forces, implemented the comprehensive crew endurance management policy. The instruction requires ships to alter sailor watch schedules in order to align with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. 

“The crew had been thinking about this idea — setting the watches to preserve circadian rhythm, to preserve crew rest, to preserve sleep. But the idea had only been dabbled in,” Lescher said. “Roy made it a requirement and a policy. And if you go aboard our ships and talk to the sailors and ask them about how they stand their watches, you’ll see that it’s been made a requirement and it’s a part of the fundamental culture.”

The cultural changes have expanded beyond just the SWO community, Lescher said. In both the submarine and naval aviation communities have also changed the way they operate, altering lighting, meal schedule, training, and watches to promote healthier sleep habits for aircrews and maintenance personnel alike. Fatigue and sleep deprivation effects are being taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. And the branch is currently conducting a pilot program that uses a wearable device to report sailor sleep assessments.

Can these strategies — leadership-driven change, education initiatives, and new technologies — be implemented at the department-level to push the Pentagon’s higher-level culture shifts? 

Top-down culture change has been urged involving any number of shifts the Defense Department is currently navigating, from the Army’s new fitness test to high rates of sexual assault and harassment. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Pentagon have been vocal on issues like a viral TikTok  alleging sexual harassment in the Marine Corps and Fox host Tucker Carlson’s denigrating comments about female troops. This — at least from the very, very top leadership — is a more vocal push for change than is typical. 

But ineffective training and education for both troops and leaders has been identified as one of the factors in high rates of sexual assault and harassment. Rather than developing new programs and technologies, the Army is having to scrap its previous Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program and take steps backwards to revamp before moving forward. 

Just using the culture around military sexual assault as an example, the Defense Department’s new leadership has made moves that suggest top-down culture change is more real than ever — but the Navy’s sleep deprivation shift suggests more must be done to improve education and training programs as well as delve into newer technologies. 

“Our nation depends on a Navy that maintains the advantage at sea,” Lescher said. “To provide that Navy we must effectively learn from mishaps, share that learning to accelerate insights and best practices, and we must institutionalize that learning to drive sustained change behavior.”