What is Shift Work Disorder?

Dr. Dan JensenShift Work Disorder, Sleep

Dr. Dan Jensen
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Have you been struggling to sleep enough at night? Does your work schedule change every few days and make it harder to sleep? Or maybe you’re working from home and you find yourself working unusual hours. If your work schedule is irregular and you’re not sleeping well, you may have shift work disorder that’s affecting your sleep.

What is Shift Work Disorder?

If you work a job that has you up at night, working in the early morning, or frequently rotating between shifts, you risk developing shift work disorder.  This condition can cause sleep disturbances or insomnia. If you have shift work disorder, you’ll experience significant sleep loss and extreme drowsiness when working.

If you have shift work disorder, you sleep on average 1 to 4 hours less than normal per night. You’ll be a bit sleep deprived all the time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16% of workers in the U.S. have shift work schedules. This means they’re working at night or rotating between shifts. Of these, around 1 in 5 will experience shift work disorder!

Shift Work Disorder And Your Circadian Rhythm

Americans working nights or working rotating shifts experience disruptions in their circadian rhythm. This is the body’s natural sleeping and waking cycle, or your internal body clock. When you work at irregular hours, you’re awake at different times every week, or you’re consistently up when it’s dark out. Switching between shifts or consistently working at night can throw off your circadian rhythm, and lead to shift work disorder. 

Jet lag is another circadian rhythm disorder that can have the same effect on your body. It confuses your circadian rhythm and makes it very hard to fall asleep when you go to bed, or wake up in the morning.

Light Regulates Sleep

Our internal circadian rhythm is regulated by light. Natural sunlight signals to the body that it’s time to wake up, increasing breathing and heart rate, and getting energized. Darkness signals that it’s time to slow down and prepare for sleep, and your body produces melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Shift work disorder happens when your work interferes with this traditional sleeping and waking cycle. You’re forcing yourself to stay awake when it’s dark out, and you try to fall asleep in daylight. However, you’ll have a hard time falling asleep when you go to bed and you’ll feel sleepy during the day.

The Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder

Some people have no problem working night shifts. Others just can’t go against the natural circadian rhythm. Not everyone has the same symptoms, but many people will experience daytime drowsiness, lack of sleep, and insomnia. Other symptoms include:

  • Moodiness, irritability, and impatience
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks or concentrating 
  • Struggling to cope with problems, such as relationship stress or parenting issues
  • Feeling less social
  • Increased risk of accidents at work, at home, or when driving
  • Poor immune system responses, and more health problems

These are just some of the symptoms of shift work disorder. Sleep is extremely important for our overall health and wellbeing, so if you’re consistently under-sleeping, you’ll soon notice other health concerns.

Increased Shift Work Disorder from Your Screen

Are you working from home? Do you spend a few hours working in the evening after you’ve put the kids to bed? The blue light from your computer, phone, or TV mimics natural light. It can keep your body awake while you’re working at night, but it makes it even harder for your circadian rhythm to regulate sleep. When you do finally turn off your screen and call it a night, you’ll have a hard time feeling relaxed or falling asleep. And when the sun comes up in the morning, your body wakes you up even if you haven’t had enough sleep. 

Treating Shift Work Disorder

If you’ve been consistently sleeping too few hours every night, contact us for help. Together we’ll look at your rotating or night-time work schedule, and find a way to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. For example, improving your sleep hygiene by setting a consistent sleep schedule, turning down the temperature at night, or even getting darkened blinds can improve your sleep quality and help you get the sleep you need to be productive.