Shift Work Sleep Disorder: What It Is and How to Avoid It

As many as 10-40% of shift workers are affected by this disorder. Read on to learn how to detect and avoid it.

By Ashley Little

Jun 9th, 2022

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Around 20% of the full-time workers have jobs that require shift work. This refers working beyond the typical 9-5 business hours in an effort to provide a company with services throughout an entire 24-hour period each day.

These types of workers tend to work shifts during hours that overlap times in the evening or early morning when a majority of the population is sleeping.

Having such a schedule can disrupt the circadian rhythms—causing a condition called shift work sleep disorder. Shift workers with this disorder include doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, factory workers, paramedics, office cleaning crews, etc.

What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is a circadian rhythm disorder that affects anyone who works during non-traditional hours that go against their own circadian rhythm, or biological clock. This clock regulates the body’s sleep-wake schedule—determining when a person gets sleepy and feels awake.

It typically operates on a 24-hour schedule and is controlled by sunlight, so when a person is sleeping during the day and waking at night, the internal clock can get disrupted.

Who is Affected by Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is most common among those who work at night, mixed shifts, or early morning shifts.

Approximately 10-40% of people who work nontraditional shifts suffer from this disorder. Those who are less likely to have it are workers who consider themselves to be night people, rather than morning people.

Switching to new shift schedules does require an adjustment period, but when people are having a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep several weeks into the shift schedule, it’s usually a sign of shift work sleep disorder.

People with this disorder tend to sleep as many as four hours less than the average person each day. Symptoms tend to stay present until a person’s shift schedule changes, and even then symptoms may persist throughout a person’s new day shift schedule.

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

The symptoms of shift work sleep disorder include:

  • Having a difficult time falling and staying asleep
  • Feeling tired and unrested after 7-9 hours of sleep
  • Excessive sleepiness throughout the work day
  • Digestive upset (nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach, constipation)
  • Poorer quality of life
  • Increased stress
  • An increased risk for job-related accidents and car accidents
  • Low immune system
  • Nodding off for a few seconds at a time
  • Mood disorders
  • Poor coping skills
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Social issues

Since these symptoms can mimic narcolepsy and sleep apnea, a doctor will examine a person’s sleep patterns, heart, breathing, sleep quality, and number of sleep disturbances.

A person suspected to have this disorder may also be given an actigraphy test that involves wearing a device on the wrist to measure movements throughout the day and determine when a person is awake and asleep.

Consequences of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Not everyone who works rotating shifts, night shifts, or early morning shifts will develop a shift work sleep disorder. Those who do, however, have a greater risk for accidents related to lack of sleep and missed work than those who do not have this disorder.

In fact, major catastrophes such as oil spills have been linked to this condition in the past. When this disorder occurs over and extended period of time there can be severe health consequences such as:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Fertility issues and/or irregular periods
  • Mood disorders
  • Diabetes
  • Metabolism issues
  • Increased cancer risk

On a day-by-day basis, shift workers typically suffer from fatigue, poor performance, poor memory, indigestion, gastrointestinal problems, and other sleep deprivation symptoms. But they are also at increased risk of ongoing health problems like chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disorders, depression, diabetes, ulcers, and some forms of cancer.

How to Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift work sleep disorder can have fatal consequences. The good news is that there are some ways to try to combat this condition and avoid the symptoms and consequences. 

Adjust Your Light Exposure

Since circadian rhythm is affected by light exposure, you can alter your lighting when needed for sleep or waking times that do not align with the sun. You may want to wear dark wrap-around sunglasses after work to avoid sunlight that may stimulate you before you need to sleep.

Darken your bedroom with blackout curtains or use a sleep mask to help you fall asleep during the daylight hours. Upon waking for work, use a light therapy lamp to help you adjust to the opposite sleep/wake schedule.

Stay as Consistent as Possible

Keeping your circadian rhythm aligned requires consistency. Do your best to wake up and go to sleep at the same times each day, even on the weekends. The rest of your schedule should stay consistent as well, including your diet and exercise.

Consider a Melatonin Supplement

Before depending on sleep medications, there are alternative supplements you may want to consider. First, consider the parts of your diet that may be affecting your sleep in a negative way including caffeine and alcohol. Avoid consumption of caffeine and alcohol four hours or so before your scheduled sleep time.

Melatonin supplements may be a beneficial additive to include in your routine. This is a natural supplement that helps you feel tired and fall asleep. Consult with your physician if you have any concerns.

Other Tips

  • Strategic use of caffeine can also help shift workers stay awake, especially if they consume regular, small doses of caffeine (rather than fewer, large doses), and taper off caffeine consumption halfway through their shift so that their caffeine levels have time to dissipate before sleep.
  • Increasing the intensity of light in the workplace, and shifting the wavelength of light toward the blue end of the spectrum (to make it more similar to natural daylight) may help workers to adapt to working at night, and may even enhance their ability to sleep during the daytime.
  • It is possible to trick the body’s biological clock to some extent by wearing dark glasses when returning home in the morning, and generally limiting after-work, pre-sleep exposure to light.

Your sleep and your health are two things you never want to sacrifice. Shift workers should take caution by knowing the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder to recognize and start treatment when needed.

For more information on sleep disorders and treatment, check out Mattress Advisor’s sleep health resources.