sleep help for shift workers

What is Shift Work?

Shift workers follow a schedule that’s outside of the traditional Monday through Friday 9-5 work day. Typically, full days are divided into shifts, with workers covering the entire 24 hours, some of them in the evening, overnight, or early in the morning. Shift workers are becoming increasingly common in our 24 hour society.

While shift work can keep hospitals, factories, retail stores, and other places of employment operational and productive around the clock, it can also take its toll on workers. Often, shift workers struggle to get adequate sleep as their circadian rhythm or internal clock pushes them to stay drowsy at night and alert during the day.

Occupations in Shift Work

Almost 15 percent of workers in the United States are on shift work schedules. Shift work is most common in service occupations including police, firefighting, security, and food preparation. More than half, 50.6 percent of shift workers, are in protective service, while 40.4 percent of shift workers are in food preparation and serving. Production, transportation, and material moving occupations make up an additional 26.2 percent.

Men are more likely to take shift work than women, with 16.7 percent of men and 12.4 percent of women on shift work schedules. In race, 20.8 percent of African American or Black workers are on shift work, while shift workers make up 16.0 percent of the Hispanic or Latino workforce. Asians have a 15.7 percent shift workforce, and 13.7 percent of white workers are on shift work.

These professional occupations typically involve shift work:

  • Police
  • Firefighters
  • Security guards
  • Food preparation and serving workers
  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Emergency medical services workers
  • Hospital staff
  • Air traffic controllers
  • Casino workers
  • Manufacturing and production workers
  • Retail service and stocking workers
  • Meteorology professionals
  • Internet service workers
  • Media and telecommunications workers (TV and radio broadcasting)
  • IT support staff
  • Customer service representatives
  • Hospitality workers
  • Truck drivers
  • Bus drivers, railroad workers, ship transport, and other transportation workers
  • Public utility workers
  • Funeral and death care professionals
  • Oilfield workers

Why People Work Shift Schedules

For many shift workers (54.6 percent) taking shift work schedules is just in the nature of the job. Others participate in shift work for personal preference, better family or child care arrangements, job availability, or better pay.

Types of Shift Work Schedules

  • Multiple shift patterns: Workers on multiple shift patterns do not work the same hours every day. They may work afternoons or evenings one day, then switch to overnight the next, sometimes even within the same week.
  • Same shift pattern: Workers on a same shift pattern work fixed, predictable hours, but they are overnight or otherwise not in line with the typical Monday through Friday 9-5 schedule.

Shift Work and Sleep

Shift work may be essential for many occupations, but it is not without its disadvantages. The National Sleep Foundation reports shift work causes sleep disturbances, excessive sleepiness, fatigue, poor concentration, absenteeism, accidents, errors, injuries, and even fatalities.

Consider these facts on shift work and sleep:

  • Only 63 percent of shift workers believe their work schedule allows them to get enough sleep versus 89 percent of non-shift workers. (National Sleep Foundation)
  • Among night and rotating shift workers, about 10 percent have shift work disorder. (National Sleep Foundation)
  • Shift workers experience excessive sleepiness or insomnia at a rate of 25 to 30 percent. (National Sleep Foundation)
  • Night shift workers typically sleep around five to six hours, which is less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per day or night. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Rapid shift rotations are associated with reduced total sleep more than slower rotations with at least three weeks per shift schedule. Rapid counter clockwise rotations are especially disruptive. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Sleep loss associated with shift work is primarily taken out of stage 2 sleep (the dominant sleep stage) and REM stage sleep. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • The night shift has a 30 to 50 percent increase in accidents in car manufacturing. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Between 10 to 20 percent of workers report falling asleep during night work. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Performance decrease during simulated and actual shift work is approximately equivalent to the effects of blood alcohol levels of .05 percent or greater. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Alertness related accidents and loss of performance is estimated to cost society more than $40 billion annually in the United States. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Improving rest conditions for on call medical interns to a maximum of 16 consecutive hours of work and 60 hours per week has been found to reduce many types of medical mistakes. (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)
  • Medical interns with shifts longer than 24 hours are more than twice as likely to have a car crash and five times as likely to have a near miss driving after leaving work. (New England Journal of Medicine)
  • Car crashes cause 22 percent of work related deaths. In seven percent of these car crashes, drowsiness or falling asleep are primary crash factors. (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

How Shift Work Affects Your Circadian Rhythm

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal timekeeper. When you do shift work, you’re creating a misalignment between this internal clock and the outside world. Your circadian rhythm tries to keep you in line with the outside world, reinforced by light and other external signals. This may make you drowsy while you’re working at night — and wide awake when you should be sleeping during the day.

This effect is exacerbated if you’re on a rotating or multiple pattern schedule. While on a permanent shift, your circadian rhythm can adjust somewhat over time, it’s difficult to do so when the schedule keeps changing. Your circadian rhythm just can’t catch up, keeping you in a state that’s like constant jet lag.

Shift Work Tendencies

Certain tendencies are common when sleep is affected by shift work. Shift workers often become night owls and sleep fewer than six hours on workdays. They typically work more hours per week on average and dangerously, experience drowsy driving at least once a month. Shift workers may also experience more accidents, decreased performance, and excessive sleepiness.

Shift Work Disorder

Shift work can lead to a condition known as shift work disorder, a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that can misalign or desynchronize your sleep, making it difficult to sleep when you want or need to.

Symptoms of shift work disorder include:

  • Excessive sleepiness when you should be awake
  • Insomnia
  • Insufficient or unrefreshing sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty in personal relationships

Shift work disorder health risks include:

  • Heart disease
  • Metabolic problems
  • Ulcers
  • Obesity
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Increased risk of certain treatments

Medical treatments for shift work disorder include:

  • Good sleep hygiene
  • Schedule adjustments
  • Sleep environment adjustments
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Medications including Provigil and Nuvigil

Tips for Managing Shift Work Sleep Disruptions

There’s no denying that shift work can cause sleep problems, affecting your performance and overall wellbeing. But there are some steps you can take to improve your sleep and decrease the negative effects of shift work.

  • Maintain a regular sleeping schedule: Keep your sleep schedule consistent to give your circadian rhythm the ability to adjust and stick with your sleeping schedule.
  • Get enough sleep: Be careful not to skimp out on sleep hours, giving yourself enough time to rest and refresh.
  • Be careful with caffeine: It’s a good idea to drink coffee at the start of your shift to improve alertness, but avoid caffeine later in your shift, as this can interfere with sleeping when you’re ready to head home.
  • Avoid working multiple nights in a row: Sleep deprivation may increase over several nights, so it’s best to schedule days off in between night shifts to give yourself time to recover.
  • Avoid rotating shifts: Shifts that change often make it more difficult for your body’s internal clock to adjust to the schedule.
  • Avoid extended work hours: Make sure you have time to sleep and participate in activities outside of work so that you’ll feel refreshed before it’s time to get back to the job.
  • Avoid long commutes: Give yourself as much rest time as possible by avoiding long commutes. If possible, avoid bright light or stopping for errands on your way home from work, which will only make you more alert and hinder falling asleep.
  • Expose yourself to bright light at the start of your “day”: Bright light tells your brain that it’s daytime and time to be alert. Using bright light can help you train your body to recognize the start of your nighttime shift as day.
  • Take measures to stay alert at work: Use bright lights to keep yourself more alert when you’re on the job. Bright light can tell your brain that it is daytime and time to be awake.
  • Take a nap before the night shift: A quick nap before you go in for your night shift can improve alertness and help you catch up on any missed sleep.
  • Limit disturbances during sleep hours: Use blackout curtains or blinds to block out light during the day, turn off your phone, and ask family to limit noise and visitors while you’re sleeping.
  • Share your schedule with family members: Be sure that family members are aware of your schedule and understand that it may mean not being involved in daytime activities. Encourage them to plan around your schedule.

Sleep Help for Shift Workers

Sleep Help for Shift Work by Profession

Nurses and Doctors

Railroaders

Police

Firefighters

Pilots

Active Duty Military

Security

Additional Resources for Shift Workers

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep Disorders

Sleep Technology

Shift Work Sleep Studies

Shift Work Disorder

Insomnia

  • WebMD: An Overview of Insomnia: Visit WebMD’s resource to learn about types and causes of insomnia, how its diagnosed, symptoms, treatments, and good sleep habits that can help beat insomnia.
  • Mayo Clinic: Insomnia: The Mayo Clinic offers an in depth exploration of insomnia, from symptoms and causes to risk factors, complications, treatments, and even alternative medicine.
  • National Sleep Foundation: What Causes Insomnia: Learn about the causes of insomnia from the National Sleep Foundation.

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