Shift Work Sleep Disorders

Shift workers, like first responders, hospital staff, factory workers, miners, and office cleaning personnel, have at least one thing in common. They are all at risk of developing shift work sleep disorders. Workers that have irregular shifts may not be getting the amount of sleep their bodies need. The sleep deprivation is worse for workers, such as first responders and medical professionals, who are required to have on-call shifts. Sleep deprivation can cause accidents in the workplace, as well as several other health problems.

The “graveyard shift” or the third-shift is the work time that takes place between 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. This shift use to be predominantly worked by bakers, factory workers, security guards, miners and medical professionals, but now, nearly 15 million Americans in various jobs are giving up valuable sleeping hours to work around the clock. Although not everyone who works these late hours will develop shift work sleep disorder, many either have or will. People with shift work disorder have higher rates of absenteeism and accidents related to sleep deprivation than workers who do not suffer lack of sleep.

Some symptoms of sleep shift disorder include memory loss, inability to focus, and visual impairment. Workers experiencing any of these symptoms can be involved in debilitating or life-ending accidents. These workers an also suffer from depression and irritability. However, these are just a few of the health issues workers with shift sleep disorder can suffer from.

In a study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, it was discovered that women who have worked rotating night shifts for five years or more not only experience shorter lifespans in general, but also have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Those who have worked the graveyard shift hours for more than 15 years or more are also more likely to die of lung cancer. Scientist concluded that shift work that disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm is carcinogenic to humans.

Circadian rhythm is the natural, internal system designed to regulate feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. The brain’s circadian clock regulates sleeping and feeding patterns, alertness, core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, regulation of glucose and insulin levels, urine production, cell regeneration, and many other biological activities.

Often times shift workers experience a disruption of their body’s natural circadian rhythm. Sleeping during daylight hours is a challenge because the body’s natural response is to be awake during the day. It’s difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep with sunlight streaming through windows and the noise of everyday activities occurring around the home. Without deep sleep, or REM sleep, the body does not get the quality of rest required to avoid the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The sleep problems that result from shift work can be detrimental on every area of a worker’s life. Employers should watch shift workers for signs of sleep deprivation and strive to create work schedules that do not require frequently rotating shifts. It is easier for a worker to transition from a daytime shift to a nighttime shift rather than the other way around. Schedule teams of employees to work together on projects in order to promote alertness. Employers should also allow workers (on any shift) take frequent breaks. Consider setting up break areas that promote rest and relaxation. For some workers, napping may be essential to staying alert. Having a quiet, comfortable place that allows workers to get a little shuteye during their shift can improve worker alertness, concentration and effectiveness.

While daytime workers can also suffer fatigue and sleep deprivation, graveyard shift workers are most likely to develop serious health issues because of their work schedules. Workers who have nightshifts can get better sleep during the day by doing the following:

  • Wearing a sleep mask to block out the sunlight
  • Hang room darkening curtains on bedroom windows
  • Eliminate noise from the sleep environment with earplugs
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages before sleep times
  • Keep the same bedtime and wake time schedule, even on the weekends

Compared to dayshift counterparts, graveyard shift workers are more likely to be involved in workplace accidents. Sleep deprivation can cause have a negative effect on attention span, concentration, reaction time, memory and mood. It is because of this that shift workers are also more likely to suffer devastating health conditions. Prolonged fatigue may cause depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain and cancer in some workers. There are a variety of ways to cope with sleep problems caused by shift work and ongoing night work. Employees and employers should work together to create shift schedules that aid healthy sleep patterns.

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