Alaska Sleep Education Center

Sleep Management for Shift Workers

Posted by Kevin Phillips

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on Mar 30, 2019 7:02:00 PM

Being tired on the job can lead to severe injuries or worse.


We are living in a 24/7 global society in which many businesses, industries, and services around the world operate non-stop, which is great for production, customer satisfaction, and even safety.

We can hop on a jet at 1:00 a.m. to fly halfway around the world, we can visit a hospital at 1:30 a.m. to seek treatment for a bad case of the flu, we can head down to a convenient store at 2:00 a.m. to pick up a box of diapers, we can call tech support at 2:30 a.m. when our internet stops working, we can even hit the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant to get a late night snack at midnight.

The quality and convenience afforded us by having businesses operate 24 hours a day is staggering. It's hard to imagine there being any drawbacks.

However, there is a very real problem with having all of these services available at any time of day or night: somebody has to work during those hours.

What is Shift-work?

Woman trying to get energy for her work day.Approximately 20% of the U.S. workforce is currently employed in some type of shift work.

Shift-work can be characterized as any work schedule outside the traditional "9 to 5." It can include early morning shifts, late afternoon shifts, early evening shifts, graveyard shifts, and even rotating shifts where hours worked change day-to-day or week-to-week.

Some of the most common jobs that require shift work are:

  • Medical professionals (doctors, nurses, EMTs, hospital staff)
  • Airline employees (pilots, stewardesses, baggage handlers, etc.)
  • Law enforcement officers and personnel
  • Firefighters
  • Retail clerks
  • Convenient store employees
  • Customer service clerks
  • Restaurant staff
  • Truckers

How Does Shift-Work Impact Sleep?

The demands of shift-work can take not only a toll on the worker's sleep, but on their overall health as well.

Historically speaking, having 24/7 access to businesses is a fairly new phenomena. The problem with shift-work is that while our demands for access to round-the-clock services has increased, our circadian rhythms have yet to catch up.

Nearly every creature on earth's sleep/wake schedule is regulated by their circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are calibrated by the appearance and disappearance of natural light in a 24-hour period. The term circadian is derived from the Latin "circa diem" meaning "approximately a day.

For most people, the body clock is set for sleep to begin around 11 p.m. and make us rise around 7 a.m. Although there is some deviation for each individual this clock is the standard norm, generally, people are sleepiest between 2-4 a.m. and again between 2-3 p.m. (although most rarely nap), and most alert in the early mornings and late afternoons.

To learn more about how circadian rhythms work, click here.

Because our circadian rhythms have been engrained in us for thousands of years, the sudden need for people to be awake during atypical hours can wreak havoc on their sleep. Many people with work schedules that have them rise and sleep at irregular times find themselves experiencing sleep troubles.

When these sleep troubles persist and worsen, they can develop into a sleep disorder known as shift-work sleep disorder (SWSD).

Consequences of shift-work sleep disorder

For those just starting working nights or those whose schedules rotate, the initial disruption to their circadian rhythm can throw off many of their body's natural functions. These symptoms are similar to those experienced from "pulling the occasional all-nighters," jet lag from traveling to distant time zones, and adjusting to new schedules from having a newborn child. These symptoms can include:

Short-Term Health Consequences

  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, constipation, and upset stomach
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Increased risk of on-the-job and vehicle accidents
  • Stress
  • General feelings of ill health

Long-Term Health Effects

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Serious gastrointestinal problems
  • Higher chances of getting colds or the flu
  • Menstrual irregularities and fertility problems

Many of these health risks are believed to be associated with decreases in the body's ability to produce melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your circadian rhythms and sleeping and waking cycles. It is also known to help bolster the immune system and prevent health problems. Some of these health risks are associated with the general lack of exercise performed by some shift-workers and poor dietary choices.

Sleep Management for Shift Workers: How to Get Better Sleep

Employers of shift-workers are starting to understand the importance of quality sleep for their employees.

Poor sleep in workers can lead to poor work performance including difficulty concentrating, decreased productivity, more mistakes, and increased chance of accidents, injuries, and even death.

It is beneficial to both employee and employer alike to take steps to alleviate the impact that poor quality sleep can have on a worker suffering from shift-work sleep disorder.

Here are some tips for managing sleep as a shift worker:

  • Make sleep a priority. If not getting enough sleep is a primary concern for you, be extra diligent in doing the things that help promote healthy sleep, and avoid the things that disturb or rob you of sleep.
  • Target things that are disrupting your sleep. For example, if you live in a home where others are awake while you are sleeping, ask them to keep noise down while you're sleeping, and not to disturb you. Make sure everyone in the household understands the importance of you getting quality sleep.
  • Keep a sleep diary. If you're having trouble discovering what factors are contributing to your sleep loss, writing in a sleep diary can help you identify things that could be robbing you of sleep.
Download The Sleep Diary
  • Get regular exercise. Make sure however that your workouts are at key times of the day. Exercising in the morning is a great way to get an energy boost and helps your metabolism speed up. However, exercising before bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep because your body temperature will be elevated.
  • Eat healthy foods. Working unusual shifts can make eating healthy more difficult as most restaurants are closed, leaving you with choices between fast food and vending machine food.  Pack your own lunches for your work shifts.
  • Avoid caffeine at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Learn more about maximizing your sleep environment.
  • Ditch your digital devices. The light from your phone, tablet, computer, etc., tricks your brain into thinking it's daylight, keeping you awake longer.
  • If you drive home from work in the morning light, wear dark sunglasses. Avoid daylight just before bedtime as it can trick your circadian rhythm into not producing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.
  • Use a "white noise" machine to block out distracting sounds if you have family members awake in the house during your sleep hours.
  • Take sleep-promoting supplements like melatonin at key times to help train your circadian rhythm to match your sleep schedule.
  • Practice sleep hygiene techniques.
 Download Sleep Hygiene E-book
  • Use bright light therapy.

Tips for on-the-job when suffering from shift-work sleep disorder:

  • If possible, take brief naps during work breaks, but limit them to 10-30 minutes.
  • If working a rotating-shift schedule, talk to your employer about moving your next shift "forward" as it's easier on the circadian rhythm to sleep in a little more rather than less.
  • Drink caffeine while at work, but not shortly before getting off or close to bedtime.
  • Do the mundane work tasks first so they won't make you nod off later in your shift. Do stimulating work near the end of the shift.
  • Get active during breaks instead of resting. Take walks, exercise, or engage in stimulating activities.
  • Talk with your coworkers about your sleep troubles, and troubleshoot ideas to help you stay awake and alert.
  • Avoid long commutes that could take away from getting more sleep.
  • Avoid working extended hours.
  • Get enough sleep on your days off.
  • If you're a trucker, pull over at rest stops for naps if you're feeling tired or drowsy while driving.

If you're an Alaskan shift-worker and are experiencing difficulty with maintaining quality sleep, contact the Alaska Sleep Clinic and receive a free 10-minute phone call with a sleep educator. In this phone call we can help determine if a sleep study at one of our 4 locations may be appropriate in diagnosing and treating your condition. Don't let poor sleep get in the way of you and success at work and your personal life, contact us today.

Chronic Drowsiness

Topics: sleep disorders, treatment

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