Could You Have Shift Work Disorder?

Healthcare, transportation, manufacturing workers, and public servants play a critical role in our society, often working in the wee hours of the morning when the rest of us are sound asleep. Working nights, early mornings, or rotating shifts can affect workers' health. The impact is significant enough there's even a name for this problem: shift work disorder.

About one fifth of the population engages in some type of shift work. Shift work disrupts our internal clock, which tells us when to eat, sleep, and be active. We're programmed, so to speak, to be awake during the day and to sleep at night.

Shift workers average one to four hours less sleep than people who work regular day jobs, and report that their quality of sleep is poor. Even if they slept eight hours daily, however, shift work would still take a toll. It's not just the amount of sleep that's important; when we sleep also matters.

Consequences of shift work disorder

Many shift employees work in dangerous occupations or roles where their actions can have life and death consequences. Sleep disturbances caused by working shifts causes insomnia or excessive sleepiness and increases the risk of injury and accidents due to drowsiness.

On the personal side, shift workers can become irritable and miss important family and social time. Disrupting the body's natural rhythms can affect appetite and shift workers are susceptible to gaining weight.

Shift work disorder has long-term effects as well. Individuals who work nights or rotating shifts for more than 10 years dramatically increase their risk for heart and gastrointestinal disease.

How to cope with shift work disorder

The American Academy of Sleep offers tips for minimizing and coping with work-related sleep disruptions.

  • Reduce the number of times you change shifts and plan ahead for shift changes.
  • Make sleep a priority and prepare your mind and body for sleep by establishing bedtime rituals.
  • Keep the same schedule on non-working days.
  • Ask your employer to change shifts forward in time, rather than back, and to allow for regular rest periods and time for exercise.
  • Take a short nap before your night shift begins.
  • Arrange transportation home at the end of your shift, when you're fatigued and your driving may be impaired. Go to bed as soon as possible after working.
  • With your family's help, create a quiet environment that's conducive to sleeping.

Cleveland Clinic. "Shift Work Sleep Disorder." Web. 21 November 2008.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Shift Work." Web. 10 July 2007.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Sleep Tips for Shift Workers." Web. 4 June 2007.

American Sleep Association. "Shift Work Disorder." Web. September 2007.

Washington University Sleep Medicine Center. " Shift work sleep disorder." Web.