Shift work can be very disruptive to your sleep cycle, to the point that you can develop a circadian rhythm sleep disorder known as shift work sleep disorder. Unlike plain insomnia, shift work sleep disorder is tied to when you are able to obtain sleep, often as a result of working night shifts or rotating shifts. Your body clock does not correspond to the time of day you are able to sleep, due to your schedule.
Signs & Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder
Not everyone can work a 9-to-5 job and many who arrive very early, work nights, or rotate shifts exhibit symptoms that are disruptive on the job. For example, they may exhibit:
- Excessive sleepiness that causes yawning or periods of sleep
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep between shifts
- Low energy levels
- Problems concentration
- Irritability or a continual bad mood
While these symptoms can impact your readiness to do your job, having shift work disorder can also make it more likely that:
- You will sustain work-related injuries
- You will make costly mistakes
- You will need more sick time
- You will be at risk for more sleep-related car accidents
- You may use alcohol or drugs to aid in sleeping or waking
When your circadian rhythm, or your internal body clock is disrupted, your chronic levels of fatigue will keep you from functioning properly. Your irregular schedule also puts you at risk for conditions such as heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and illnesses such as infections, colds, and flu.
What Causes Shift Work Disorder
Whether you work nights or alternate between shifts, your body’s internal clock, or its circadian rhythm, becomes confused. Your body views light as a signal to be awake and darkness as a cue to sleep. Anything other than the first shift mixes up the signals. A second shift starts during the day and ends close to midnight, while third shift put you on the job overnight. Even starting the first shift when it is dark can cause problems.
For some people, sleeping at any time is not a problem, but many on nontraditional work schedules find themselves unable to get to sleep. They are still energized from the day and not ready to go to bed even though they have the opportunity to sleep. If they do go to bed, they may have trouble falling asleep and may experience low-quality sleep, especially if their sleeping quarters are noisy or light trickles in from the window. By the time they get to sleep, it may be time to wake up, and they restart their workday already exhausted. They come into work feeling tired and may even fall asleep on the job.
While some adjust to new shifts after a time, others never really adjust to early morning shifts, night shifts, overnight shifts, or rotating shifts and some may do better on one rather than another.
Behavioral And Life Style Changes To Aid Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Your specialist may also suggest some behavioral techniques that you implement to help yourself sleep, such as:
- Room darkening shades
- Blocking out digital displays
- Wearing earplugs to kill sound
Some effective, but less obvious suggestions may include:
- Wearing dark wraparound glasses on your trip home from work to get you in the mood to sleep.
- Maintaining a comfortable temperature of 65 Fahrenheit in your room so it is not too hot or too cold to sleep.
- Eating a healthy diet rather than fast food or high-calorie vending machine snacks
- Avoiding alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
- Working exercise into your regime
- Gaining the cooperation of your family to ensure uninterrupted sleep time
Treatment for Shift Work Disorder
For people in occupations where shift-work is the norm, such as for medical personnel, law enforcement professionals, or factory workers, permanently shifting to days is not an option. If you are a night owl, you can adapt to changing shifts, but if not, you may need the help of a doctor to adjust to your schedule.
Specialists at the Center for Sleep Medicine will approach a problem by having you keep a sleep diary, by performing a sleep study, or by giving you an active graphic test, which requires you wearing a watch-like device that measures your movements day and night. If the testing proves that you have shift work sleep disorder, the doctor’s recommendations might include:1
- A prescription for sleeping pills for a short time or a medication such as Metaformil, which is used for narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders.
- Dietary supplement such as melatonin that can help you improve your sleep.
- Bright light therapy that uses artificial light to help you transition to new shifts.