Are your work hours crazy? Do you work nights, or swing shifts, rotating your work schedule to different hours every few weeks?
You know the struggle of balancing work and sleep with other obligations. It is hard to sleep when others are awake and to stay awake when others are following their natural tendency to go to bed.
Rotating shifts or working nights goes against your natural Circadian rhythm. It is not surprising that many night shift workers have trouble adjusting to a sleep schedule in conflict with most other people around them.
If you find yourself struggling with interrupted sleep schedules that leave you in a chronic state of excessive sleepiness, you are probably struggling with shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). This disorder is commonly experienced among people working the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
In addition to insomnia and excessive sleepiness, SWSD can include headaches, lack of energy and difficulty concentrating. Left untreated it could lead to chronic insomnia and clinical depression.
Many people working nights accept the lack of sleep as simply part of their routine. Often sleep is interrupted or given low priority when trying to take part in family activities. Lack of quality sleep can have serious health and safety consequences.
As someone who worked night shift for many years with a long commute to and from work, I know firsthand the dangers sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue. On more than one occasion, I somehow managed to drive forty miles home after working back to back 12- hour night shifts and never remembered driving or even clocking out at work. One night I was driving home and fell asleep behind the wheel. Something startled me awake just as I topped a hill within sight of my driveway. The bright lights of an 18-wheeler were glaring in my windshield because I was driving in the wrong lane. If I had not wakened at the last second; I would have hit that truck head on right in front of my home.
Other serious consequences of shift work sleep disorder include mood disorders such as irritability, and depression, increased illness, increased accidents both minor and major, and increased work-related errors.
The only real cure for SWSD is to stop working nights or rotating shifts. When that is not an option, try to avoid rotating shifts as the constant changes in schedule make it even harder to establish an adequate sleep and wake routine.
It is important to get seven to eight hours sleep every day to avoid excessive sleep deprivation.
Get to bed as soon as possible after work and set up your environment to maximize sleep quality.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before going to bed. Darken your bedroom with light-blocking curtains or shades. Post notes on your door not to be disturbed and be sure family and friends know you are not be disturbed during your usual sleep times.
If excessive sleepiness is making it hard for you to concentrate or stay awake on the job, caffeine and a prescription medication to help you stay awake may help. Medications should be a last resort and used for as brief period of time as possible. Do not self-medicate with over-the-counter supplements or energy drinks in place of getting adequate sleep. To do so can put you and those around you in danger if you should fall asleep or pass out while driving or taking care of others.
A good night’s sleep is the best solution. When that is not possible, getting at least seven hours of sleep a day and catching up on sleep and rest on your days off will help decrease complications from long-term shift work sleep deprivation.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder, (n.d.), Cleveland Clinic-online. Retrieved from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/sleep_disorders/hic_shift_work_sleep_disorder.aspx
Primary insomnia: a risk factor to develop depression? University of Rochester Medical Center – Online,
Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 76, Issue 3, Page 255