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Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Symptoms & Treatments

Tara Youngblood Aug 02, 2022

Understanding 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, also known as SWSD, is a medical condition that can affect people who work non-traditional hours for extended periods of time.

This disorder is more common among workers who have schedules that fall outside the usual 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. workday, such as those who work overnight or rotating shifts. [2,3] SWSD can cause difficulties in falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling rested after sleep, which can lead to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired cognitive function.

It is important for individuals who work these types of schedules to be aware of the potential risks associated with SWSD and to take steps to manage their sleep and overall health. Let's look into some of the more common symptoms experienced by those facing shift worker sleep disorder.

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]

Read More: How to Wake Up With More Energy

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.

How It Disrupts Your Circadian Rhythm

Shift worker sleep disorder disrupts the body's circadian rhythm, often referred to by clinicians as the "internal clock," which operates on 24-hour cycles. The most significant cue for this rhythm is the cycle of light and darkness; as the sun sets, it naturally induces drowsiness, signaling when to sleep. Conversely, the rising sun prompts us to wake. [6]

However, irregular or nocturnal work hours characteristic of shift work misalign your body's internal clock with these natural cues. This leads to a struggle with sleepiness and wakefulness at inappropriate times, as the body attempts to adjust to a schedule that contradicts the natural light-dark cycle and typical societal routines, resulting in disturbed sleep and an overall disordered sleep pattern.

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]

Understanding and Mitigating Circadian Rhythm Disruptions

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

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) has been associated with several severe health conditions like cancer, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. Yet, experts suggest that we should not lose hope just because our job requires us to work in shifts.

There are several things that individuals can do to mitigate the effects of SWSD and other sleep problems. Employers also have an essential role to play in promoting healthy sleep habits. Research has demonstrated that prioritizing employee sleep health can significantly affect job satisfaction, overall well-being, and productivity. [14, 15, 16]

It is interesting to note that while circadian rhythms can be trained to a schedule, chronotypes are more genetically fixed and permanent. Hence, a night owl shouldn't work an early morning shift. [17] To cope with the sleep issues caused by ongoing shift work, adopting individualized strategies that best suit your needs is important. This involves some experimentation and figuring out what works best for you.

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

Lean on Your Support Cirlce

Just as the timeless saying goes, "We get by with a little help from our friends," the same applies when you're trying to catch some much-needed sleep.

If you share your space with others, don't hesitate to open up about your conditions. Kindly ask your roommates or family members to keep the noise down during your sleeping hours.

You may suggest they draw the curtains or dim the lights before you come home, helping you avoid the stimulating effects of bright light. Remember, those who care about you will understand and are often more than willing to help create a peaceful environment for your rest.

Napping on a couch

Embracing the Power of Napping

Napping isn't just a quick timeout; it's a strategic tool many have come to rely on, especially when gearing up for a shift. A brief, rejuvenating nap lasting no more than 30 minutes can be a game-changer. It's not just about catching a few winks but recharging your alertness and shaking off the grogginess.

This short burst of rest can significantly decrease the sleep pressure that builds up throughout the day, making you feel more awake and prepared to tackle the tasks ahead. [18]

So, if you find yourself dragging your feet before a shift, consider embracing the art of the power nap and feel the difference it makes in your work and overall alertness.

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]

When to Consult a Doctor About Your Shift Work Sleep Disorder

When it comes to shift worker sleep disorder, recognizing when to seek advice from a doctor is crucial for your health and well-being. If you find that despite your best efforts, you're still struggling with persistent sleepiness during your waking hours, or if your sleep is consistently interrupted or non-restorative, it's time to have a chat with a healthcare professional.

Additionally, if you notice that this sleep disruption is taking a toll on your mood and cognitive function or it's affecting your personal and professional life, don't hesitate.

These are clear signs that professional guidance could make a significant difference. Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength and an important step towards reclaiming the quality rest your body and mind deserve.

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!


[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). 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.