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What You Need to Know about Shift Work and Sleep

If you work the night shift, follow these tips to make sure you're getting the sleep you need (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

If you work the night shift, follow these tips to make sure you’re getting the sleep you need (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

If you always find yourself going to work when other people are heading home or are at work when most people are sleeping you may be at risk for a sleep disorder called Shift Work Disorder.  This sleep disorder can affect those who work schedules outside the regular 9-5 day that is generally considered the work day.  Shift Work Disorder can affect those that work night shifts, evening shifts, early morning shifts, and shifts that rotate from day to day or week to week.  Nurses, police officers, firemen, doctors, and factory workers are all examples of shift work jobs that can make people more likely to develop Shift Work Disorder.

Not everyone who works a shift-based schedule gets Shift Work Disorder; experts believe that about 10% of those that work non-traditional schedules experience the symptoms of the disorder.  But for those that do develop it, the symptoms can make an already challenging schedule harder to manage.  The most common symptoms of shift work disorder are:

  • Excessive sleepiness experienced during times when you need to be awake, alert, and working
  • Insomnia which includes having difficulties falling asleep and/or waking up before you have gotten enough sleep
  • Waking up feeling as though you did not get enough sleep
  • Feeling like you never get enough sleep
  • Difficulties with concentration and focus
  • Low energy
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Difficulties managing interpersonal relationships
  • Falling asleep while at work or while driving
  • Experiencing microsleeps (involuntary sleep that last for a couple seconds)
  • Chronic sleep deprivation

Most shift workers will experience some of these symptoms from time to time because of their unusual schedule.  The symptoms rise to the level of a disorder when they are persistent, ongoing, and begin to interfere with a person’s personal life or job performance.

The dangers of Shift Work Disorder are significant.  People who struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness, problems staying alert, and who experience microsleeps are at a greater danger for accidents while on the job.  These symptoms also compromise productivity and can increase the rate of errors and mistakes.  Over the long term, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

Additionally, research indicates that long-term shift work can be detrimental to overall health.  For example, consistently working the night shift has been associated with an increased risk for certain types of cancers in addition to the other health problems associated with inadequate sleep like obesity, heart disease, and metabolic disorders.   Research has also shown that working late shifts increases the risk for depression because of the interruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

To combat the effects of shift work on their sleep, shift workers can:

  • Take naps at the right time to ease any sleep-related productivity and alertness issues
  • Use melatonin to help reset the body’s clock
  • Use light therapy to help reset the body’s clock
  • Practice good sleep hygiene in order to get the most sleep possible
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Tempe, AZ

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