Whether it was due to a late night out on the town or cramming for an exam, most of us have pulled an all-nighter occasionally. But for millions of people, staying up all night is a regular part of their job.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 20 percent of people work overnight or evening hours. For some people, working these non-traditional hours can lead to a sleep disorder. Shift work sleep disorder is a condition, which can occur if your natural sleep cycle is chronically disrupted due to working overnight or rotating shifts.
Causes of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
To understand more about shift work sleep disorder, it’s helpful to learn a bit about how sleep works. Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep cycle over a 24-hour period. Think of it as your internal clock telling you when to sleep and when to be alert.
Most people have an internal rhythm, which involves sleeping at night and being awake during the day. Doing the reverse and staying awake all night and trying to sleep in the day, goes against most people’s natural circadian rhythm. When you work overnight, you create a conflict between what you need to do and what your body wants to do, which is why sleep problems can develop.
People who have shift work sleep disorder may have trouble falling asleep, which leaves them feeling excessively tired and fatigued. Some people can get to sleep, but have trouble staying asleep. In fact, according to UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, night shift workers tend to get between two and four hours less sleep each day than the general population.
Additional symptoms may include headaches, inability to concentrate and irritability. But that’s not all; sleep deprivation can affect your mood, reaction time and concentration. The effects can lead to a variety of other problems, such as increased sick leave, a higher rate of accidents and decreased productivity.
Preventing and Treating Shift Work Disorder
Most people cannot quit their job and take a nap! But what you can do is decrease the chances of developing the disorder. If possible, try to limit how many overnight shifts you do to no more than four in a row. It’s also helpful to avoid rotating shifts.
If you work night shift, try to take a nap before you leave for work. If your job allows, a short nap during your lunch break may also improve alertness and get you through the rest of your shift.
Although it may not always be possible, you should try to stay on the same sleep-wake cycle even on your days off. Keeping to the same sleep schedule will help your body adjust to sleeping during the day and may improve the quality of your sleep.
Improving Sleep Quality
When you get off work, try to get to sleep as soon as possible. Keep your bedroom, quiet, cool and dark to improve the chances you’ll stay asleep. Invest in blackout curtains and earplugs to block out sunlight and noise.
Although guzzling coffee and other caffeinated drinks may help get you through your working hours, taper off towards the end of your shift. Caffeine can stay in your body for several hours, which may keep you from falling asleep. If sleep problems persist, you may want to consider seeing a sleep specialist. Options for treatment include the following:
Medications: Both prescription and over-the-counter medications are available that can help you fall asleep. Over-the-counter medications used as a sleep aide usually contain an antihistamine. Prescription medication is available that can help you fall asleep easier. But along with the benefits, there are risks and side effects, so they should be taken with caution.
Light Therapy: Light has a big effect on your sleep/wake cycle. Light therapy involves sitting near a light box for a prescribed amount of time. It can be used to help adjust your sleep/wake patterns to either later or earlier depending on the timing of the light exposure.
Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in your brain. Melatonin is usually released in the evening and makes you feel sleepy. It is also sold as a supplement to promote sleep. Keep in mind, it is not regulated by the FDA and as with any supplements, it’s important to talk with your doctor before taking melatonin.
Cleveland Clinic. Shift Work Sleep Disorder. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/neurological_institute/sleep-disorders-center/disorders-conditions/hic-shift-work-sleep-disorder Retrieved September 2015
UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. Coping with Shift Work. http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/coping-with-shift-work Retrieved September 2015
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With the increase in the manufacturing sector’s reliance on shift work to increase productivity and eliminate downtime, an equal rise in the number of shift work related sleeping disorders has appeared. This brings with it many challenges to people working in manufacturing or other industries where they are required to work during alternating timeframes over a long period of time.
Shift work as a sleeping disorder falls under the banner of jet lag and other circadian rhythm sleeping disorders. The circadian rhythm operates on a nearly exact 24 hour cycle, and governs when we should feel tired, when we should alert, and when we should eat and perform other tasks. This is also referred to as our internal clock, and is also influenced by sunlight to a large degree. This natural cycle exists not just in humans, but in plants and animals as well. When this balance is dramatically upset by extended periods of waking and sleeping at times contrary to what your internal clock expects, and has become used to, it often leads to side effects that are difficult to eliminate as long as the disturbance exists.
The main side effect of unbalanced sleep is increased tiredness, which trickles down to many other areas of your life. It can cause irritability, decreased alertness, play havoc with your appetite, weaken your memory, and have an overall poor effect on your mental health and stress. Decreased alertness also brings with it a rise in job related or other accidents, which can oftentimes be serious or even fatal in manufacturing environments.
It is not just manufacturing that is subject to shift work though. Many of the most important societal sectors operate on shift work scheduling, including doctors and nurses, policemen and women, security guards, and firemen and women. The perception and alertness needed to perform these jobs is immense, and is not easy on any given day under normal conditions, let alone when suffering under the effects of a circadian rhythm sleeping disorder.
Truck drivers are probably the most well chronicled industry operating on shift work, and there have been increased public outcries about having the industry more standardized to take potentially dangerous truck drivers suffering from the effects of sleeping disorders off the roads.
The perception that the circadian rhythm is easily rebalanced after just one full sleep in the newly allotted timeframe is flawed. It can take the body as long as one week to adjust fully to the changes, and this disturbance will often lead to undersleeping, oversleeping or restless sleep as a result of the body not being fully committed to shutting down at the proposed time, and not having a sense for when it should be waking up.
Shift work sleeping disorders not only have short term effects, but may have devastating long term effects as well. Employees working in shift work positions for more than 10 years have shown drastically increased rates of heart disease and gastrointestinal disease, sometimes showing as high as a 300% increase in the instance rates of the diseases compared to the general populace.
The effects of shift work sleeping disorder affect all age groups and both genders nearly equally. Those who alternate between a day or afternoon shift and a night shift are much more likely to encounter problems than those alternating between just a day and afternoon shift. The sleeping schedules of those working alternating day and afternoon shifts are not drastically altered, resulting in a difference in sleeping times of roughly 1-2 hours.
If you work alternating shifts, especially an alternating shift phase that includes night shifts, you should consult your doctor or a sleep specialist on ways to improve your situation and reduce the effects of circadian rhythm sleep disorders. You may be asked to take a sleeping test during both phases of your shift work routine to help determine where your problems may lie, and what can be done to alleviate them.
You should further consult with your employer about practices that can be implemented in the workplace to help subdue any problems. This can include rescheduling the shift work phase order so that it moves forward in time rather than backward, giving workers regular rest periods, or even a short nap period during the shift, and using bright light to simulate sunlight in night time work environments that have natural sunlight exposure during the day. If you can convince the employer to lessen the number of shift changes or remove them entirely, this would of course be even better, but as finding enough workers that agree to regularly work the afternoon and night shifts is difficult, this may not be a realistic option.
With some of these tips in place, you’ll find yourself more productive at work, and most importantly, safer from accidents or other mishaps. This will please everyone involved, including your employer.
If you think that you have Shift Work Disorder, talk to your physician as there are several treatment options available.