The daily 9 to 5 grind can become stale rather quickly. You might decide to take on an odd shift late into the night, or you may have a job that requires you to be on-call at any time—day or night.
However, night shifts and rotating schedules present several issues of their own. The most prevalent of these is shift work sleep disorder, a condition that may adversely impact your ability to work throughout these odd hours.
What is shift work sleep disorder and what careers are most susceptible to it? Let’s take a look at that below.
What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
Shift work sleep disorder (or SWSD, for short) is a condition that typically affects those whose work hours that overlap – or go over – a normal sleep period.
For reference, most people work anywhere between 8 AM to 6 PM throughout the week. If your work hours often extend past this or your work schedule tends to be unpredictable (say, if you’re an on-call nurse, doctor, or firefighter), then you may be more susceptible to this sleep disorder than others.
You may find yourself unable to sleep when you want to, or find that you are extremely sleepy on the job when you should be productive, awake, and alert.
While most people who work odd hours may show these symptoms every now and then, shift work sleep disorder is characterized by continual, long-lasting effects that severely impact your social and professional life.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder Causes
The effects of shift work sleep disorder can be detrimental to your overall cognitive performance. Of course, depending on your occupation, night shifts, rotating shifts, or even early morning shifts may be unavoidable or difficult to change.
Those who work in the following occupations may find themselves at greater risk for shift work sleep disorder:
- The military.
- The postal service.
- Public safety.
- Service industries.
- Shipping and receiving.
Not everyone who works off hours will suffer from shift work sleep disorder.
However, if you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or you still feel tired after sleeping around seven to eight hours a night (or day) for several weeks without end, then you may have SWSD.
Symptoms usually last as long as you keep that off shift. They may go away if you take on a day shift instead and go to sleep at a normal time again.
Some people may still suffer from sleep problems even after changing their shifts. If that is the case, be sure to see your doctor about treatment as soon as possible.
Shift work can cause chronic sleep deprivation, which in turn can have serious consequences on your health, overall productivity, and even others’ safety in the work environment.
You might find it difficult to concentrate during your shifts or find that your reaction times are far slower than normal.
This then increases the likelihood of:
- Work-related accidents or errors.
- Irritability or mood problems.
- Lack of energy.
- Poor coping skills and impaired social functioning.
- Health issues (both physical and mental).
- Drug and alcohol dependency.
The most common shift work sleep disorder symptoms are insomnia (or the inability to sleep when you should or want to) and bouts of sleepiness throughout your shift.
Insomnia is characterized by having trouble falling asleep or waking up throughout the night (or day), resulting in insufficient sleep.
In this case, your insomnia is the result of your work shift constantly disrupting your circadian rhythm, or your internal body clock that regulates many of your body’s physiological processes. This includes when you typically get up, when you get hungry, and when you get sleepy.
Regular circadian rhythm disturbance can lead to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and a lowered immune system, among other health issues.
Excessive sleepiness is, unfortunately, a constant symptom of SWSD that will interfere with your ability to work, engage in social activities, or even function properly.
This sleepiness may even cause you to microsleep, which is when you involuntarily fall asleep for a few seconds out of pure exhaustion.
Of course, suddenly falling asleep on the job—even for a few seconds—can be harmful to your overall competency at work and even be extremely dangerous, depending on your occupation.
Who Suffers From It?
Though the exact prevalence of shift work sleep disorder is still unclear, the Cleveland Clinic estimates that as many as 10 to 40 percent of all night and rotating shift workers in America suffer from this disorder.
People who have irregular working schedules are the most likely to be affected by this sleep disorder.
Though SWSD can occur at any age, those who are 50 and older age are more likely to suffer from this condition than any other demographic. Female night and rotating shift workers are at more risk for this sleep disorder than their male counterparts as well.
Certain types of people tend to be more affected by irregular shift work and sleeplessness than others. People who are natural night owls are able to avoid the disorder and many of the symptoms that come along with it, while others may have a preference for working in the early morning hours.
Ultimately, some people will have a greater genetic predisposition to shift work sleep disorder than others.
Please keep this in mind before you decide to take a late shift at work the next time you are offered one.
Here’s a video with a deeper explanation on shift work sleep disorder.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your doctor may use the International Classification of Sleep Disorders to figure out if your symptoms are the result of shift work sleep disorder.
They may start by asking you about your typical sleep patterns, your medical history, and about the hours you usually work (if there is a “usual” time). It’s best to complete a sleep diary that records at least 7 days’ worth of time before your visit, too.
Your doctor will try to rule out other sleep disorders before formerly diagnosing you with SWSD. In order to do this, you may have to complete a sleep study at a sleep clinic.
What does this entail? Essentially, you just have to rest at a sleep clinic overnight and wear monitors on your fingers, chest, or face. These will measure your sleep quality, the number of times you wake up throughout the night (or are disturbed), heart rate, and breathing.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder Treatment
There are three kinds of treatment for shift work sleep disorder: medication, natural remedies, and lifestyle changes.
If you’ve tried making changes to your sleep schedule, but still feel sleepy or experience microsleeps at your job, your doctor might suggest you take medication to treat your shift work sleep disorder.
There are a wide variety of shift work sleep disorder medications, all of which will serve different purposes.
Some medications, such as modafinil (brand name Provigil) and armodafinil (brand name Nuvigil) can help people be more alert on the job by turning on the systems in your brain that help keep it awake during the day.
These medications can improve sleep, lessen sleepiness throughout your work shift, are non-habit-forming, and are FDA-approved. In clinical trials, modafinil, in particular, was shown to reduce the impairment of long-term memory, as well as improve memory acquisition.
Sedatives such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) may be prescribed by your doctor if you have trouble staying asleep at night as well, but these should be used sparingly and only for short periods of time.
Your doctor may prescribe you other sleep aids if they feel a sedative is too powerful for you to handle. Some examples of medicated sleep aids include benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, and even certain antidepressants.
Though taking medications could help you correct your sleep schedule somewhat, making certain changes to your lifestyle will definitely improve the overall quality and duration of your sleep throughout the night (or day).
There are plenty of natural remedies you can take in place of medications if you wish. Some may be recommended by your doctor, while others can be tried prior to seeking out medical advice.
The most popular natural remedy is taking melatonin, which is a hormone that helps your body recognize when it’s time to sleep and wake up.
Normally, your body makes more melatonin at night, but late shifts or irregular work hours may confuse your system, thus resulting in less melatonin being produced when you need to sleep.
You can buy natural or synthetic melatonin supplements as sleep aids.
Other natural remedies include:
- Valerian Root.
- Passion Flower.
- Glycine, which is an amino acid that helps to stimulate your growth and overall maintenance.
- Tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid that may help improve your sleep quality.
- Ginkgo biloba, which is a natural herb that may help reduce stress, enhance relaxation, and promote better sleep.
- L-Theanine, which is an amino acid that may help improve sleep and relaxation.
How to Prevent It
A few easy lifestyle changes can easily help you get a better night’s sleep:
- If possible, try not to work too many night shifts in a row. The more nights you spend sleep-deprived, the more likely you are to underperform at work or, worse, cause an accident. If you can schedule a few days off a week in between your shifts, then you should be able to recover in time for your next shift.
- Try to avoid rotating shifts, or simply adjust your work schedule so that it rotates from a day to evening to night shift, rather than the reverse.
- Avoid long commutes if at all possible.
- Always keep your workplace brightly-lit. If you have to work a night shift, it helps to keep a large, bright light nearby. Special light boxes, lamps, and visors designed for those who suffer from circadian-related sleep problems are all good options to have on hand. This is because light influences our circadian rhythms, telling us that we should stay awake rather than feel tired. Exposing your body to bright light during your odd shifts will help train your body to slowly adjust your circadian rhythm to fit your work schedule.
- Limit caffeine intake. Drinking coffee at the beginning of your shift will definitely help keep you alert, but consuming caffeine later in your shift may make it harder for you to fall asleep later.
- Avoid being in direct, bright light on your way home from work. Wear dark sunglasses that wrap around your eyes or a big hat to shield yourself from the sunlight. Just as light helps our bodies recognize that we should stay awake, darkness signifies that we should be heading off to bed. By shielding your eyes from any harsh light on your way home, you are letting your body know that it should be winding down for sleep.
- Stick to a regular sleeping schedule as often as you can.
- Limit phone calls, screen time, and visitors before and during your sleep hours.
- Use blackout blinds or heavy curtains to block out sunlight while you sleep during the day. Again, your body needs a good amount of darkness to help you sleep and stay asleep throughout the night (or rather, throughout the day).
This video explains more about shift work sleep disorder.
Can Shift Work Sleep Disorder Be Cured?
While many people can’t entirely change their work hours, applying lifestyle changes or taking one of the medications listed above may lessen the severity of your sleep deprivation.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive cure for this sleep disorder (unless you manage to change your work hours to a more reasonable time, of course).
While you can’t completely cure your shift work sleep disorder (especially if your job requires you to work at irregular hours), there are still plenty of other ways to get the sleep you need.
Even the smallest lifestyle change can have a huge impact on your health. Now that you know different methods of obtaining a good night’s sleep, despite your odd working hours, you may be able to perform better during your shifts and feel better overall.
How do you deal with shift work sleep disorder?