Working Nights? Here Is What You Need To Know About Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 12/10/2020

You are at home in bed, exhausted. You just finished working the night shift and now struggle to fall asleep. You are not alone. Shift work can wreak havoc on your sleep and the way you feel, causing a condition known as shift work sleep disorder. This disorder has been steadily on the rise as the world shifts towards an always-connected marketplace. Individuals that suffer from this disorder often experience insomnia on the one hand and long periods of sleep on the other, which is the number one symptom of Shift Workers Syndrome or the Shift Worker Sleep Disorder (SWSD).

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Understanding Shift Work Sleep Disorder 

Although the name is self-explanatory, if you keep irregular hours, you should watch out. Your typical workday does not have to start precisely at 9:00 AM and end by 5:00 PM. However, shifts that are substantially different and with no set pattern in them across the days of the week, over several weeks, may certainly increase your level of risk. That is because you are going against the built-in body clock that we have all taken for granted at one time or another. Going against our internal body clock also breaks our natural circadian rhythm connected to the daybreak at dawn, ending the workday with sunset.

With shift work sleep disorder, individuals struggle to adjust to another schedule. Individuals often find themselves dealing with a haphazard sleeping habit, resulting in difficulty controlling sleep onset. Patients report having trouble falling asleep, getting enough sleep, and even deciding when they want to sleep. The prevalence of this disorder concerns, given that nearly 1/5 of the full-time workforce in the United States engages in shift work.

Symptoms Associated with the Shift Work Sleep Disorder

While the most common symptoms associated with this disorder appear relatively mundane, do not be lulled into taking this disorder lightly. The main symptoms include:

  1. Having trouble sleeping
  2. Overwhelming sleepiness when you don't expect or want

Other symptoms are commonly linked to a wide variety of sleep-related problems such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Experiencing headaches
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of energy

Just because you have a challenging schedule does not mean that you will end up with Shift Work Disorder. Data shows that between 10% and 40% of shift workers experience this disorder. Therefore, the majority do not appear to have any of the issues mentioned above or are yet to be statistically included. However, if you are having trouble, you may want to consult with a medical professional.

Consequences Associated With Shift Work Sleep Disorder

At first glance, SWSD appears to be centered on one’s ability to control the sleep function, but the risk factors are tremendous. Just imagine: on average, human beings sleep for a third of their lives just to stay reasonably healthy. Any kind of disregard for your sleep is going to have severe repercussions. When you fail to get enough sleep or find yourself having trouble sleeping, you:

  • Have a higher chance of getting into an accident, including a motor vehicle accident or something work-related.

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  • May be unable to regulate your mood or experience irritability.
  • Experience a deterioration in your coping skills as well as impaired social functioning.

Additionally, sleep impairment can create problems with bodily systems and functions, including the gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems. These issues occur because of the intricate connection between the various systems within the body. For example, the vague nerve is a direct link between the brain and your gastrointestinal system. If your brain is not at rest, it is going to upset your metabolism.

Inadequate sleep can also affect how satisfied you are with life. Less sleep often results in dissatisfaction with your life experience on a day-to-day basis. If you are not careful, this can easily lead to substance abuse, whether prescription drugs, alcohol dependency, or other drugs.

Coping With Shiftwork Syndrome

Did you know that most often shift workers get the short end of the sleep stick? Data shows that the typical shift worker sleeps between 1-4 hours less than their 9 to 5 counterpart does. It is important to remember that a healthy adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep daily.

Therefore, if you know that you have to cope with this disorder, then you have to go out of your way to make sleep a priority. Here are some tips to help you get an uninterrupted 7-9 hours of sleep:

  • If it is daylight outside, you have to convert your immediate area into a dark room, especially if light bothers you. Remember that your body still thinks there is enough night remaining to get a good long sleep after a night's work. To keep your body in this rhythm, it’s essential to minimize your exposure to sunlight as much as possible. The morning sunlight will reset your internal body clock, and you may want to start the day anew, making it difficult to fall asleep.
  • When it comes to falling asleep, it can help have a set of rituals and bedtime routine that you do every night. Getting into this habit means it won't matter what time you actually hit the bed. In a Pavlovian fashion, your body will begin to expect a long period of restful sleep in response to what your conscious mind will perform before bedtime. The more consciously you engage in the process of sleep, the better your returns will be.

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  • Do you live with others? If so, ask for cooperation from your family, including active assistance in making sure you get enough rest. Everyone you live with should know not to disturb you during the most vulnerable period— when you are sleeping. They should leave you in a quiet, peaceful corner, even if you have to sleep by yourself.
  • An investment in a good pair of headphones or another sound system so each person can indulge in music or watch TV without disturbing you would be worth it. Especially if your family members or roommates will be home during the day when you need to be sleeping.
  • It is also essential to make sure certain basic rules are set in the household. For example, while you sleep, make sure others in your home are not vacuuming, using loud appliances, or even being in and out of your personal space. These boundaries are necessary for you to get the uninterrupted sleep you need. If there is a struggle with these boundaries, consider having some kind of sign to indicate to others in your home that you are sleeping. If ordinary “Do Not Disturb” signs will not cut it, engage your creativity, and print out something highly custom. If you live at a shared, rental, such a sign could reduce interruptions to your sleep from a ringing doorbell or knocking.
  • The time investment you make in your sleep every single day should be valued much higher than what you bring in working through the day because this sleep affects your relationships, your ability to function and survive, all your memories, and just about everything that makes sense to you. Your work life is but a tiny fraction of everything that you owe to your sleep hours.

Overcoming the Effects of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

The good news is that you do not have to let SWSD dictate your life. This sleep disorder can be overcome with a bit of effort to establish good, healthy habits. It will be a struggle, especially in the beginning. However, with time and consistency, the quality of your sleep (and your overall health) can be improved, and shift work disorder can be outdated. If you are currently suffering from SWSD, then here are some things you can do to overcome the effects of this disorder:

  • Keep Notes. A sleep habit diary is a perfectly normal way of figuring out where the problem is and if it is getting better or worse. Once you can identify it, you can find the root issues behind these problems and address them.
  • Stick To Habits. Even with chaotic work life, try to build a pattern. Try working with your employer to see if adjustments can be made to your schedule to better accommodate the issues you have to create a better routine. If you cannot switch from the night shift, try to get more than 48 hours off at a stretch to make sure you can get as much rest as possible.
  • Minimize Overtime. While it can be tempting to work a double shift or pick up extra hours for the cash, it creates major problems for your sleep, especially if you are already struggling with shift work disorder. When you work prolonged shifts or excessive overtime, it will reinforce the negative patterns in your routine.
  • Prioritize Rest. Focus on spending the time that you do get off work towards restful sleep and rejuvenation. For example, young parents may find that that joy comes from playing with their young children and spending time with their family. You just have to find what works for you.
  • Shorten Your Commute. If possible, find ways to spend less time getting to and from work. When we have long commutes, it cuts into the precious time you have to rest. If you cannot shorten your commute, consider another mode of transport that is not so energy-intensive (i.e., taking the train versus driving on the freeway). While this does not give you time to sleep, it can help your mind relax.
  • Avoid Caffeine And Other Stimulants. This needs to be said because of how pervasive this problem is. You want to avoid caffeinated drinks and food that stimulates you hours before you have to hit bed. So anything that would interfere with your mood, including alcohol, nicotine, etc. should be avoided near your sleep hours.
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  • Try A Nap. If your work allows, try to schedule a nap during the night shift by putting your head on your desk or taking a break in your car. This can help you get some much-needed rest and helps minimize the impact on your circadian rhythm. However, not all jobs can accommodate this.
  • Sleeping Aids. Ideally, sleeping aids would be the last resort. If nothing else is working and you are still unable to get restful sleep, consider talking to a medical professional about your options. You must work with a doctor before taking any sleeping aids.

Working nights can be highly problematic for your sleep and your overall health. However, many times the night shift is unavoidable. Whether you are working the night shift indefinitely or your schedule is changing all the time, shift work sleep disorder is a serious disorder that should be actively addressed. If you are working nights and think you may have SWSD take this free sleep test, you can determine whether it is time to get help. With the right tools and habits, shift work sleep disorder can be reversed.

NOTES: I do not believe any changes are noted at this time. I just wanted to point out (please correct me if I am wrong), this disorder does not exist in the DSM V.  I do not recall hearing about this, or reading about this before. I would double check that the diagnosis is factual in the DSM prior to posting article.

  • Does not go against what is clinically accepted.
  • Does not encourage mindsets or practices that may be harmful to the reader.
  • Is factual and up-to-date.