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As humans, we have circadian rhythms that dictate when we should sleep and be awake. Based on this, most of us work during the day and sleep at night.
But millions of employees fight against their circadian clocks every day. About 25 million Americans are shift workers with rotating or irregular work schedules.
Shift work sleep disorder is a medical condition caused by a misalignment between the body and the circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
Symptoms of shift work sleep disorder vary for each person. But, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine's International Classification of Sleep Disorders (Third Edition), they often include insomnia, obesity, sleep apnea, and excessive sleepiness. This can make it hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
What is shift work sleep disorder?
Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) can arise when your natural sleep cycle is persistently disrupted. One frequent cause is overnight or rotating shift work.
But to truly understand what shift work sleep disorder is, it's essential to know how sleep works.
Sleep is governed by a person's circadian rhythm, which is their natural sleep cycle within 24 hours. It's like an 'internal clock' that tells your body when to sleep and wake up.
Most people have a circadian rhythm that instructs them to sleep at night and remain alert during the day. Staying awake at night and sleeping during the day conflicts with this natural rhythm.
When you work night shifts, you create a juxtaposition between your work requirements and your body's instincts. This can lead to issues such as shift work sleep disorder.
5 symptoms of shift work sleep disorder
These are the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder that you should be aware of:
1. Excessive sleepiness
SWSD can present as mental exhaustion, fatigue, physical exhaustion, and reduced alertness while a person is at work at night or in the early morning. They may even feel compelled to nap during their shifts.
People who suffer from SWSD often battle to fall asleep and stay asleep. More specific insomnia symptoms can vary according to the nature of each work shift.
For instance, employees who clock in between 4 am, and 7 am tend to struggle to fall asleep early enough to get their required hours in. Those who work evening shifts often wake up more during the night.
According to the Sleep Foundation, the average employee with shift work disorder loses between one and four hours of sleep every night.
3. Lack of energy
A lack of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep can leave people with shift work sleep disorder with low, unstable energy levels.
Some sufferers may turn to stimulants such as caffeine to keep them going throughout their shifts. This can actually disrupt their sleep cycles further, which worsens their symptoms.
4. Anxiety and depression
People with SWSD are at higher risk for depression and anxiety than individuals with 9-to-5 jobs.
Researchers found that shift workers were 28% more likely to experience mental health struggles than day workers or people with consistent weekday work schedules.
5. Difficulty concentrating
Sleep-deprived individuals suffering from shift work sleep disorder may have difficulties concentrating on tasks.
This can affect their work performance over time, leading to a higher risk of accidents in the workplace. This is particularly true if their positions demand a high degree of mental acuity.
7 tips to cope with shift work sleep disorder
There are many different methods of treatment for shift work sleep disorder. Follow these tips to reduce your symptoms of sleep problems.
1. Minimize exposure to light on the way home from work
Minimizing your exposure to natural and artificial light on your commute home from work prevents this light from activating your internal 'daytime clock.' This limits the disruption to your sleep schedule.
Some experts recommend wearing dark sunglasses on your drive or commute to reduce your exposure to the morning light.
2. Avoid working several night shifts in a row
Rotating your work shifts at random and working numerous night shifts in a row can negatively impact your health. If you must rotate your schedule, request that the shifts be rotated clockwise. This way, you can stagger your nightshift work and your day or morning shifts evenly.
As well as rotating your work shifts, avoid consistently working long hours (though we know that is easier said than done). This will ensure you don't become overwhelmed and ultimately suffer from burnout.
3. Keep a regular sleep schedule as much as possible
Setting a sleep schedule is one of the most important parts of sleep hygiene and getting enough sleep. This can be difficult when your work hours change regularly. But the more consistent you can keep your sleep time, the easier it will be for your body to adjust to falling asleep.
You can use sleep aids like a sleep tracker or a sleep diary to track your sleep disturbances and make necessary changes.
According to a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, such sleep trackers positively influence healthy individuals' sleep and exercise habits.
4. Create a quiet, peaceful space to encourage sleep
Another key to coping with SWSD is to make your bedroom as conducive to rest as possible. This means adjusting your sleep environment. Try to minimize distractions and disturbances when feasible to enjoy as much sleep as possible.
Keep your room dark and keep out bright light by using blackout blinds. Try to reduce the temperature to a comfortable level using your thermostat. Put your phone on silent, and switch off other electronic devices for a nighttime digital detox.
If you live with a family, let them know that you would prefer not to be disturbed while you are sleeping.
5. Stick to a regular eating pattern
Eating a healthy diet and practicing mindful eating can go a long way in reducing the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder. Choose nutritious and easy-to-eat meals and snacks before and during your shifts.
Your body needs nutrients to create essential sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin. Eating sugar and fat-laden snack foods instead of wholesome meals has been shown to negatively affect your sleep.
Be sure to eat before your shift to keep your energy and blood glucose levels stable.
6. Try to avoid long commutes
Facing a long drive home after a late shift can put you at risk in several ways.
Studies show that people suffering from SWSD are up to 3X more likely to be involved in a car accident than those who don't. This is particularly concerning for night shift workers, who could be traveling during non-traditional hours.
Reduce your risk by having a brief nap before leaving work or pulling over to sleep if necessary. Or stay at a friend or colleague's house nearby if you feel too tired to drive home safely.
7. Ask those you live with to respect your need for sleep
Regardless of whether you live with roommates, a spouse, children, or other family members, speak openly with them about your challenges with SWSD. Ask them to respect your need to sleep at certain hours.
Request that they do not disturb you or enter your bedroom during certain times. Their support will play a crucial role in ensuring that you can keep the symptoms of SWSD under control.
How is shift work sleep disorder treated?
Lifestyle changes are an essential component of healthy sleep. But there are other treatment methods available at sleep centers and at home to manage SWSD.
Some solutions include:
Stanford Health Care recommends bright light therapy to manage circadian rhythm disorders.
This technique uses a specialized lightbox to deliver timed light exposure to delay a patient's biological clock. This shifts their sleep periods to more appropriate times.
The US FDA approves modafinil and armodafinil as wake-promoting drugs with a low potential for dependency. These medications have been shown to improve sleep and reduce morning-after drowsiness.
Modafinil has also been shown to reduce long-term memory problems associated with SWSD.
Keep in mind that you should always consult with a doctor before taking medication, as some can have serious side effects.
Some doctors may prescribe sedatives to patients with SWSD. These include medications like zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta).
However, it's important to note that most of these medications are not intended for long-term use, and they should be used sparingly. Lifestyle changes and building good habits are a more sustainable and long-term treatment approach for shift work disorder.
What are the consequences of shift work sleep disorder?
Studies have shown that people suffering from SWSD are at risk for numerous behavioral and health-related issues.
Some of the most prevalent consequences of this disorder include:
Feeling disconnected from friends and family
Social interaction and human connection are fundamental needs.
Shift workers may battle to find the time or energy to connect with their friends and family. The nature of their work may mean that their sleep patterns are out of alignment with their loved ones'. This can compound the issue.
These employees are also at risk of developing depression, which can further isolate them socially and negatively impact their energy levels.
Physical well-being suffers
SWSD can worsen underlying health conditions, including metabolic and cardiovascular disease, increased risk of heart disease, and gastrointestinal issues. Some people experience low testosterone levels and associated fatigue.
Poor work performance
People with shift work sleep disorder may struggle to concentrate at work and remember important details and procedures. These effects can quickly impact their performance at work. They can also lead to more work-related accidents and higher workers' compensation costs for employers.
Higher risk of accidents
SWSD impacts reaction times and alertness, putting employees at a higher risk of making errors and becoming involved in accidents at work.
People suffering from sleep deprivation are also at a higher risk of becoming involved in traffic accidents. Every year, drowsy driving causes nearly 100,000 traffic crashes.
Why is sleeping so important for your well-being?
Sleep is one of our most basic physiological needs as human beings. Having disrupted sleep cycles can significantly impact our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Sleep enables your body to repair itself, improves learning and memory, and lowers your stress levels. While they don't lower stress levels on their own, stress trackers are great tools to monitor your stress and sleeping patterns.
Research has shown that dreams may reactivate and reorganize learned information. This can improve memory, data retention, and recall.
Dreams only occur during the deep REM phase of your sleep cycle. But this cycle may be interrupted or absent in people with circadian rhythm disorders like shift work sleep disorder.
Learn how to cope with shift work sleep disorder
Coping with shift work sleep disorder will involve implementing sustainable lifestyle changes –– even when your work schedule is irregular.
You may also approach a healthcare provider for other treatments. Medications and phototherapy have all been proven to improve the symptoms of SWSD.
Contact BetterUp to understand how quality sleep impacts your well-being. Our specialized coaches can work with you to optimize your lifestyle and improve your sleep.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions