Recognizing and Treating Shift Work Sleep Disorder and Health for Shift Workers
Shift work is becoming increasingly common in today’s working world. It includes any schedule which involves working at least one shift outside of the 8-5 norm and can be entirely composed of night shifts, rotating shifts, split shifts and/or long day shifts. While shift work can have its advantages, such as offering greater flexibility and more money, it can also come with many physical and psychological health hazards, including a type of sleep disorder known as shift work disorder, or SWD.
What is Shift Work Disorder (SWD)?
Shift work disorder is a type of insomnia caused by a disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm due to night or rotating shift schedules. It is associated with disturbed sleep, fatigue, problems with concentration and memory, irritability, stomach problems, and an increased risk of accidents due to lack of alertness.
Recognizing the Symptoms of SWD
When sleep problems persist for more than three months, it is likely that a sleep disorder is present. Symptoms of SWD include difficulty staying awake during night shifts, sleeping during the day, excessive daytime sleepiness, and difficulty sleeping on days off. Sleepiness affects the body and mind and can reduce occupational alertness and performance.
Risk Factors for SWD
Certain lifestyle factors may increase the risk of developing SWD. These include:
- Working at night or rotating shifts: Genetics can affect an individual’s ability to adjust to shift work. In general, those who do not adjust well face a greater risk of SWD.
- Working outside of a 9-5 schedule: Individuals who work long day shifts or have a split shift can also have difficulty adjusting their circadian rhythms to work outside of the typical schedule.
- Sleep deprivation: Not getting enough sleep can lead to increased fatigue and sleepiness during shifts, which increases the risk of SWD.
- Poor sleep hygiene: Having habits that disrupt sleep quality and quantity, such as drinking caffeine or eating late at night, can make it more difficult for the body to adjust to shift work.
Fortunately, SWD can be treated with lifestyle changes and medications. Treatment strategies include:
- Sleep hygiene: Establish a regular pattern of sleep, avoid caffeine and other stimulants, and practice relaxation techniques.
- Light exposure: Exposure to bright light at the right times can help reset the body’s internal clock.
- Stimulants and sedatives: Stimulants such as caffeine and modafinil can increase levels of alertness during shift work, while sedatives can help with sleep.
- Melatonin: This natural hormone helps regulate your body’s internal clock and can be used to help adjust to shift work.
Shift work disorder is a serious condition that, if left untreated, can lead to fatigue, poor concentration and impaired performance. It’s important for shift workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of SWD and to seek help if needed. With proper care, shift workers can take steps to successfully manage their shift work sleep disorder and overall health.