Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that can affect people who work non-traditional hours. This can include people working night shifts and irregular shift patterns. 22% of the workers in the UK are shift workers, with 22% of these working one night a month, and 11.7% as full-time night workers.1 All these workers are at risk of SWSD, but it’s not a well-known condition.​

Challenges of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

The main challenge shift workers experience is that shift work forces you to sleep against the clock. Your internal body clock, or your circadian rhythm, signals to you when it’s time to sleep or wake up. This clock is influenced by exposure to sunlight, so the body’s natural cycle is to be awake when the sun is up and to snooze when the stars are out. However, shift workers have to fight their body’s natural rhythms, especially those regularly working night shifts. Daytime sleep is often less efficient than sleeping during the night, as your body is constantly battling against light and noise. This challenge to your circadian rhythm prevents you from enjoying the full, deep sleep that you need.

You can read more about circadian rhythms here.

Shift workers who feel like they haven’t had enough sleep, even if they’ve slept well, will find themselves feeling lethargic and irritable. They’ll also have difficulty concentrating, which can make work even more tiring. People with Shift Work Sleep Disorder will struggle with these feelings over time, and it’ll eventually start to interfere with their family life and work.

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Symptoms can include:

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep – even insomnia
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Microsleeps
  • Depression
  • Lack of energy
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep that feels insufficient

Unfortunately, shift workers have the hardest time when it comes to achieving a good night’s sleep. As some may work a week of nights, and others have mixed rotating shifts, it can be a challenge to get into any kind of routine. This lack of routine can cause chronic sleep deprivation, which has serious implications on health, productivity, and safety. Therefore, if you feel that you are suffering from Shift Work Sleep Disorder, visit your GP.

Excessive Sleepiness and “Microsleeps”

Many shift workers struggle with excessive sleepiness when they’re at work, with family, or even when doing leisure activities. Excessive sleepiness means that you feel as though you’re fighting sleep or as if you’re going to nod off during work or when you’re socialising. It’s more than a dip in energy levels in the afternoon – it’s a constant symptom that interferes with your ability to work, study, or engage in social activities. If this is how you feel, consult your doctor as they’ll be able to determine if there is an underlying sleep problem, like hypersomnia.

People who are very sleepy can experience a “microsleep”, which is when you actually briefly fall asleep. Microsleeps are involuntary and will last for just a few seconds. Obviously, falling asleep at work is not ideal – it can be dangerous, and harmful to your productivity or competence at work. It can also upset you, your family, and your friends if it happens regularly.2

The good news is that there are some ways for shift workers to help their sleep. You can find our tips for a better sleep here.

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Footnotes

  1. https://sleepcouncil.org.uk/sleep-hub/shift-work-sleep-disorder/
  2. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/shift-work-disorder/what-shift-work-disorder/shift-work-disorder-symptoms
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