Shift Work & Sleep – Coping with Shift Work Sleep Disorder


Do you suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Do you suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Anyone who has ever done a run of shift work will know exactly what is meant by the phrase “shift work sleep disorder”. It’s a feeling of being displaced during the day and tired at night, of sleeping all day long for 12 hours straight and still waking up feeling like death warmed up.

People who frequently suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder are the police, emergency services, nurses and doctors, clerks, administrators, porters, security guards and anyone who has to cover the night shift while everyone else enjoys a good night’s sleep.

I feel like I am on night shift, is something said frequently by shift workers who are feeling off color for whatever reason and it admirably explains how you feel to any other shift worker.Shift Work Sleep Disorder- trouble falling asleep

So why do we feel so bad when we don’t sleep when everyone else is sleeping? Hey – there are 24 hours in a day, so why should it matter when you sleep, so long as you get your 8 hours?

Well, apparently (and from years of personal experience), it really does matter.  When you work an early shift, say starting at 6am, you have to get out of bed early and when you work an afternoon shift, you arrive home late in the evening.

In both cases, you can become quite tired over time, but you also have a pretty good night’s sleep, so this type of shift work isn’t so much of a problem. Shift Work Sleep Disorder really comes into its own when you rotate onto the night shift (or the graveyard shift) and you start to become unglued.


What are the symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

trouble sleeping - Shift Work Sleep DisorderThe symptoms of working a shift rotation, which includes the night shift or even just working night shift all of the time are many and varied.

They are in fact, very similar to the effects of sleep deprivation and can be anything from slightly annoying to completely debilitating.

The frustration of Shift Work Sleep Disorder becomes even greater when you don’t choose to do night shift, but it is part of your job and you just have to accept it. So let’s take a look at the symptoms experienced by many people who work rotational shifts, including night duty.

  • Tired.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Irritable or cranky.
  • Problems concentrating.
  • Difficulty sleeping.

Many shift workers look forward their rest days or to rotating onto other shifts, but depending on how often they work the night shift, it can take months to actually get back into a good sleeping routine.

One problem suffered by many shift workers is that they do actually sleep for 8 or more hours each night when they are not on night shift, but the quality of their sleep is not the same. They still feel like they have not had a good nights sleep and wake up tired instead of refreshed.


What  causes Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder - Emergency ServicesInterestingly, research has shown that there are two distinct groups of shift workers who suffer from insomnia – Sleepy Insomniacs and Alert Insomniacs.

Sleepy Insomniacs suffer from insomnia and sleepiness, whilst Alert Insomniacs just complain of insomnia, not feeling sleepy all the time.

The cause of these differences is what is truly interesting, because for Sleepy Insomniacs it is a mismatch between their circadian rhythm and their sleeping patterns, but for the Alert Insomniacs it is caused by their shift work.

This research might mean that there are two different treatment paths for shift workers who suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder, depending on whether their problem is cause by a misaligned circadian rhythm or to insomnia precipitated by shift work.

For the time being, we do what we can to mitigate the problems caused by working night shift, hoping that we can find something that helps us to sleep and function better.


What are the consequences of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Two Drivers Inspecting Damage After Traffic AccidentIf we are honest, someone needs to work the night shift, because we rely on so many services, particularly emergency services, 24 hours a day. Whilst we can’t do without our night workers, it helps to understand the consequences of their sleep deprivation, so we can look for a rational solution.

Research has shown that nearly 70% of adults report driving while feeling sleepy or drowsy at least once every month. One of the major causes of this tiredness is Shift Work Sleep Disorder and with more than 1500 deaths each year due to falling asleep at the wheel, this is a serious problem that could result in even more tragic accidents and fatalities.

Even more research has shown that shift workers who suffer from sleeping problems are more likely to have ulcers, accidents, sick days and depression, when compared to shift workers who do not rotate onto night duty. They are also more likely to have relationship problems and have a higher rate of divorce than non-shift workers.


Treatments for Shift Work Sleep Disorder 

The most obvious way to fix Shift Work Sleep Disorder is to stop doing night shifts, but some people love them and others have to pay the bills some way. So what treatment options of solutions are available to people who suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Rotating shifts: If you rotate onto night duty regularly, one thought is to rotate clockwise, rather than anti-clockwise or randomly as this helps your body cope better. This means that you would move from an afternoon shift to a night shift, then to a day shift, afternoon shift and on to a night shift again.

Napping: Other research has indicated that taking planned naps during a night shift improves the performance of nurses and doctors and air traffic controllers. For some people, taking a scheduled nap at work in their break might be enough to counter their sleeping problems and feeling s of fatigue.

Medications: Some shift workers find that prescribed medications are their solution and these work by sedating you, so that you sleep during the day. Many people however, find that their effectiveness wanes after a few weeks, that they suffer from side effects or that they eventually become dependent on these medications.

Melatonin: Results for using melatonin are mixed, however some research does indicate that the best effects are seen for insomnia due to shift work or jet lag, but only for a short duration.

Light Therapy: Research has demonstrated that exposure to bright light can be used to adjust your body’s circadian rhythm. Re-timer Glasses, which are popular with shift workers, can re-sync your body clock making it easier to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.

Music: Using music, natural sounds or white noise to block out external noises, relax you ready for sleep and to help you to sleep well is a popular solution that is very affordable. There are many different types of sleep sound machines on the market and you can read my Top 10 recommendations here.



Happy healthy familyShift Work Sleep Disorder can be very debilitating for many workers, causing long term health problems. There are a number of different solutions available to you, from prescription drugs, to melatonin, sleep sound machines and light therapy.

Of course, the best solution is to stop doing night shift, so your circadian rhythm can get back to normal. When you have no other options however, finding an affordable solution that works best for you and your family can be a really big help to all concerned.



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