Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges

Tara Youngblood Aug 02, 2022

Shift work sleep disorder

Not everyone works 9 to 5.

Not everyone wakes up at 7 a.m., eats lunch at noon, leaves work before sundown, and goes to bed at a reasonable time.

Shift workers, individuals who work while others sleep, make up 18 to 26 percent of the population in the United States. Between 26 and 38 million adults work during the evening, overnight, on-call, or rotating shifts. They are often sleep deprived, suffering from disrupted circadian rhythms. [1]

If you’re one of the millions of people who sacrifice a normal sleep schedule for your work, we at Sleepme Inc. applaud you.

They often choose shift work due to the pay differential or because they are enrolled in school. The challenges of providing for young children and alternating those responsibilities with another caregiver may also require work during the evening.

While shift workers may deliver packages late at night or serve food in the early morning to pay their bills, they can experience shift work sleep disorder.

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder, or SWSD, is a medical condition that generally affects individuals who work non-traditional hours. Typically, these jobs are outside the usual 6 a.m to 7 p.m. workday. [2,3]

Shift Work Sleep Disorder Symptoms

  • Excessive sleepiness while awake (both on and off the job)
  • Decreased attention and memory
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Recurring sleep loss
  • Regular headaches
  • Decreased mood
  • Low/Lack of energy
  • Insomnia [4]

One of the most frustrating symptoms of SWSD is when a person finally gets some sleep, and it feels incomplete and unrefreshing. It’s estimated that nearly one in five of the people in the industrialized world perform some kind of shift work. [5]

*If you're a shift worker experiencing some of the mentioned symptoms, we recommend speaking with your doctor.

Disrupts Our Circadian Rhythm

Shift work can wreak havoc on the body’s circadian rhythm, which clinicians commonly call the body’s “internal clock.” It works in cycles of 24 hours. The most potent signal of the circadian rhythm is light and darkness. As the sun goes down, it tells us when to go to sleep by making us drowsy. Similarly, as the sun rises, we begin to awaken. [6]

Thanks to the research of Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael W. Young, the scientific community has learned a great deal about circadian rhythm. By studying fruit flies, whose genetic make-up is quite similar to humans, they isolated a gene that helps control the body’s sleep-wakefulness cycles.

This intricate physiological mechanism works in concert with other processes, creating hormones and chemicals responsible for body temperature, appetite, and digestion. Even animals, plants, and microbes are guided by their own form of circadian rhythm.[7, 8]

Additional Resource: Shift Work: Disrupted Circadian Rhythms and Sleep—Implications for Health and Well-Being. [9]

All is Not Lost

Shift work can truly turn the body’s circadian rhythm on its head, negatively affecting our job performance, relationships, and our general quality of life. It’s important to know, however, that all is not lost just because we are one of those millions of Americans who have decided to go into nursing or simply want to improve our career potential by going to night school.

In the 2020/21 State of Shift Work Survey report, 1,469 shift workers and 738 essential workers in 20 countries were asked about the current state of shift work in their organizations. Not surprisingly, they were concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, job security, and the importance of a viable career path. [10]

One of the most positive revelations was that 90% of those surveyed felt that their work contributed to the success of their organization and that they were appreciated by employers. With that being said, the importance of creating a safe and healthy workplace is high on the list of workplace improvements. [11]

Undoubtedly, one of the highest priorities among occupational medicine and public health experts is high-quality sleep. [12,13]

Tired shift worker

Tips on Managing Shift Work Challenges

Although it’s true that SWSD has been linked to several serious medical conditions, including cancer, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, sleep researchers and other experts urge us not to get discouraged just because we have a job that requires shift work.

You can personally take many actions that can prevent the effects of SWDS and other sleep problems. Similarly, employers can also have a major positive effect on facilitating healthy sleep. [14, 15, 16]

Interestingly, while circadian rhythms can be “trained” to a schedule, chronotypes are more permanent or fixed genetically. Thus, it is not wise for a night owl to try working an early morning shift. [17] To cope with sleep issues caused by ongoing shift work, try strategies based on your individual needs and do require some experimentation.

Light Therapy/Lightboxes

Studies have demonstrated that exposure to light can have an impact on sleep cycles. Light therapy has been used to expose individuals to safe amounts of light, allowing them to remain alert during night shifts. Similarly, if your shift ends during the day, try wearing sunglasses until you can get home. A sleep specialist may be able to recommend lightboxes that will suit your needs.

Meditation Techniques

Prioritizing your mental well-being through meditation can help quiet the mind and body. There are numerous types of meditation and relaxation techniques. Whether it's guided meditation, mindfulness meditation or Yoga Nidra, they all share the same goal of earning inner peace.

Before you get started, take some time and explore the different types of meditation to determine which works best for you.

Read More: Benefits of Yoga and How to Get Started

Enlist Your Support System

The phrase, “We get by with a little help from our friends,” holds true. Ask any live-in companions to reduce noise when you need to sleep. They can even darken the home prior to your arrival so that you are not exposed to bright light.

Napping on a couch

Napping

Although napping certainly has its advantages and disadvantages, many people have learned to depend on a short nap of 30 minutes or less before going on shift. This can help them feel more alert and awake during the shift and reduces the sleep pressure or homeostatic sleep drive [18].

The Important Role of Employers

Can anything be done in the workplace to help prevent shift work sleep disorders? The answer is a resounding “yes!” In fact, employers are uniquely equipped (and also should have a business interest) to ensure that employees are well-rested by providing the following:

  • Sleeping rooms to allow for napping as needed
  • Healthy snacks
  • Consistency in work schedules

Most of all, as we learned in the Annual Shift Work Survey, we should regularly communicate with employees so leadership can be tuned in to their needs.[19]

Final Thought

Shift work sleep disorder can be a devastating condition that contributes to life-changing illness, impaired performance, and workplace accidents. At the same time, such crises can be so easy to prevent with a collaborative team effort between employees, employers, and healthcare professionals.

Many solutions are at our fingertips, while some require more exploration. We can all play a part in obtaining health, productivity, and well-being!

Citations/References

[1] Lieberman, Harris R, et al. “Demographics, Sleep, and Daily Patterns of Caffeine Intake of Shift Workers in a Nationally Representative Sample of the US Adult Population.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 19 Oct. 2019. View Resource

[2] Redeker, N., et al. (2019). Workplace interventions to promote sleep health and an alert, healthy workforce. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15(4), 649–657, View Study

[3] Cleveland Clinic. (2017). Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). View Resource

[4] Pacheco, D. (2022, April 15). Shift Work Disorder: What it is, what causes it, and how it can be diagnosed and treated. The Sleep Foundation. View Resource

[5] Gotter, A. (2019, November 12[Updated]) Shift work sleep disorder. Healthline. View Resource

[6] (Author). (2021, June 9) [Updated]). What is the definition of circadian rhythm – body clock? Sleep Advisor. View Resource

[7] Wickwire, E., Geiger-Brown, J., Scharf, S., & Drake, C. (2017). Shift Work and Shift Work Sleep Disorder, Clinical and Organizational Perspectives. Chest, 151(5), 1156–1172. View Study

[8] Ibid.

[9] James SM, Honn KA, Gaddameedhi S, Van Dongen HPA. Shift Work: Disrupted Circadian Rhythms and Sleep-Implications for Health and Well-Being. Curr Sleep Med Rep. 2017 Jun;3(2):104-112. doi: 10.1007/s40675-017-0071-6. Epub 2017 Apr 27. PMID: 29057204; PMCID: PMC5647832.

[10] Costa G. (2010). Shift work and health: current problems and preventive actions. Safety and health at work, 1(2), 112–123. View Study

[11] Redeker, N., Caruso, C., Hashmi, S., Mullington, J., Grandner, M., & Morganthaler, T. (2019). Workplace interventions to promote sleep health and an alert, healthy workforce. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15(4), View Study

[12] Ibid.

[13] (Author). (2021, June 9)[Updated]. What is the definition of circadian rhythm – body clock? Sleep Advisor. View Resource

[14] Costa G. (2010). Shift work and health: current problems and preventive actions. Safety and health at work, 1(2), 112–123. View Study

[15] Redeker, N., Caruso, C., Hashmi, S., Mullington, J., Grandner, M., & Morganthaler, T. (2019). Workplace Interventions to Promote Sleep Health and an Alert, Healthy Workforce. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15(4). View Study

[16] Coping with Shift Work - UCLA Sleep Disorders Center - Los Angeles, CA. (2019). Uclahealth.org. View Resource

[17[ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2015). NIOSH training for nurses on shift work and long work hours. By Caruso CC, Geiger-Brown J, Takahashi M, Trinkoff A, Nakata A. Cincinnati, OH: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2015-115 (Revised 10/2021). View Study

[18] Redeker, N., Caruso, C., Hashmi, S., Mullington, J., Grandner, M., & Morganthaler, T. (2019). Workplace interventions to promote sleep health and an alert, healthy workforce. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15(4). View Study

[19] Ibid.

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