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Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Coping Strategies & Treatment

Woman laying in bed with alarm clock in front of her.


It's an all-too-familiar story for many shift workers: struggling to sleep, feeling constantly tired, and struggling to reconcile your internal clock with a demanding work schedule.  


Shift work is tough. It throws your life into a spin, making it difficult to juggle sleep with everything else. And for 20% to 30% of shift workers, these aren't just occasional problems — they’re symptoms of a significant issue known as shift work disorder or shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)


It’s about more than feeling tired. Shift work sleep disorder is a real and serious issue that can impact your everyday life, work performance, and even your long-term health..


If you know this struggle, you're not alone. Many others are in the same boat, and understand firsthand how shift work can strain both your physical and mental health. 


But there's hope. In this blog post, we’ll focus on effective coping strategies and treatment options for shift worker sleep disorder that can put you on the course towards better sleep and overall health.  


At ShiftLink, we know your time matters. We know your work matters. Interrupting your focus on caring for others to perform the time-consuming task of filling shifts in a pinch is frustrating at best. ShiftLink is not a band-aid fix. It is a response to your deepest need — to spend more time on what truly matters. We have created a software that will ease every pain point related to shift scheduling.


Request a demo today or send us an email to learn more.  



What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)? 

Shift work sleep disorder affects those working outside the typical 9 to 5 schedule, including working nights, early mornings, or having a rotating shift pattern. 


At its core, SWSD is a disruption of your body's natural circadian rhythms. These rhythms are like an internal clock, guiding physical, mental, and behavioral changes over a 24-hour cycle, mostly in response to light and darkness. For most people, peak sleepiness hits between midnight and 7 AM, but everyone's rhythm is slightly different. 


When you're working shifts that conflict with these natural rhythms, you might find it hard to fall or stay asleep when you need to (insomnia), or avoid feeling sleepy when you should be awake (hypersomnia). This misalignment can cause significant disruptions to your daily life. 


Other common symptoms include: 


  • Trouble focusing 
  • Headaches 
  • Lack of energy 
  • Decreased alertness 
  • Changes in mood, like feeling more irritable 


Although 20% of the U.S. full-time workforce is engaged in some form of shift work, not everyone experiences SWSD. Research varies, but one review of 29 studies suggests that about 26.5% of shift workers might suffer from SWSD, while the Cleveland Clinic estimates this number could be as high as 40% among those on nontraditional shifts.  



The Serious Consequences of Shift Work Sleep Disorder 

Over time, shift work sleep disorder has far-reaching impacts that can affect your cognitive functions, physical and mental health, job performance, and even safety. 


Surgeon in hospital at front desk with hands on forehead looking tired.


Poor Work Performance 


For those with SWSD, staying focused and remembering details during work hours can be tough. This struggle often translates into reduced work efficiency. Some research suggests that the impact of fatigue at work is almost comparable to the effects of alcohol intoxication — affecting memory, balance, concentration, decision-making, and motor skills. 



Higher Accident Risk  


Reduced alertness and slower reaction times are common in SWSD, increasing the likelihood of errors or accidents at work.  


The risk extends beyond the workplace too, as drowsiness while commuting raises the chances of vehicle accidents.  


Studies across various demographics and job types confirm this elevated risk, often linked to worker fatigue due to disrupted sleep or extended work hours. 



Mood Issues 


SWSD can leave you feeling irritable and less capable of handling conflicts. This heightened irritability is often accompanied by an increased risk of depression.  


In fact, night-shift workers are 40% more likely to develop depression than their daytime counterparts. 



Alcohol and Substance Use 


It's not uncommon for people with sleep issues, including SWSD, to turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication. This, however, can lead to dependencies and disorders related to substance or alcohol use. 



Long-term Health Issues


The impacts of SWSD on long-term health are significant.  


Research in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine from 2022 highlights a link between shift work and heightened risks for serious conditions like heart attacks and diabetes. This includes the potential development of metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to several health issues including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.  



Treatment Options for Shift Work Sleep Disorder 

If you're grappling with shift work sleep disorder, know that there are treatment options out there. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out the best combination based on your specific needs and work schedule. 


From the Cleveland Clinic, treatment options for SWSD include: 


  • Bright Light Therapy: This therapy uses a special type of light to help reset your body's internal clock. Typically, you'd use this light at the start of your shift, based on the guidance from your healthcare provider about timing and duration.  

  • Melatonin Supplements: Melatonin can aid in adapting to a shift work schedule. Although melatonin is available over-the-counter, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider before starting melatonin supplements.  

  • Sleep Medications: In some cases, your provider might suggest medication to help you get restful sleep at the right times. While these can be effective in the short term, it's important to discuss the potential for dependency and other side effects. 

  • Wake-Promoting Agents: These medications can help improve your alertness and ability to stay awake. Like all medications, they come with their own set of side effects and the possibility of habit formation, and must be discussed with your healthcare provider. 



Coping Strategies for SWSD at Work and at Home 

Managing shift work sleep disorder extends beyond medical treatments. Simple changes in both your work and home routines can make a big difference.  


We understand that getting medical help can be challenging, especially with a shift worker's schedule. So, let's explore some practical strategies that you can implement right away. 



At Work 


  • Modify Your Work Schedule: If you can, try to reduce the number of night shifts in a row. Aim for no more than five night shifts with days off in between. For those working 12-hour shifts, try not to exceed four consecutive shifts.  

  • Stabilize Shift Patterns: Constantly rotating shifts can be harder on your body than sticking to the same shift for a longer duration. If rotation is necessary, discuss with your employer the possibility of following a clockwise pattern, as  suggested by a study published in the Journal of Environmental Research and cited in this piece by,  

  • Sufficient Rest After Night Shifts: After a series of night shifts, try to take more than 48 hours off, if possible. 

  • Limit Overtime and Long Commutes: Working prolonged hours or commuting long distances can eat into your valuable sleep time. If possible, seek jobs with shorter commutes. 


Woman smiling while driving.


At Home 


  • Establish a Sleep Routine: Stick to regular sleep times, even on days off. Creating bedtime rituals can signal to your body that it's time to wind down. 

  • Create a Sleep-Conducive Environment: Ask your family to maintain a quiet atmosphere while you sleep. This might include wearing headphones for music or TV, and avoiding loud chores like vacuuming. 

  • Limit Interruptions: Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to minimize disruptions from deliveries or visitors. 

  • Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Arrange a consistent sleep schedule and avoid stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. 

  • Incorporate Naps: A short nap before your night shift or during breaks can help combat drowsiness. Aim for around 30 minutes, as suggested by this study in the American Journal of Nursing. 

  • Prepare for Shift Changes: Gradually adjust your sleep schedule before a shift change. For example, if switching from a night to an early morning shift, try going to bed one to two hours later each day for a few days beforehand. 

  • Prioritize Sleep on Days Off: Though it may be tempting to run errands or care for children during the day, it's important to ensure you get enough rest. Not getting adequate sleep can exacerbate sleep problems. 



How ShiftLink Can Help 

For those of you grappling with the challenges of shift work, know that the responsibility to manage this issue doesn't rest solely on your shoulders. An effective approach to handling shift work sleep disorder involves not just individual strategies but also proactive measures from employers. 


ShiftLink was designed to make planning, scheduling, and filling vacant shifts easier for shift workers and management alike. While this alone cannot solve the problem of SWSD, we believe that it can help mitigate the challenges that result in shift workers having to work inconsistent and unhealthy schedules.


For example: 


  • Instant notifications to qualified staff make it easier to fill shifts, especially when trying to avoid frequently rotating shifts. This transparency and efficiency can help maintain a more stable schedule for employees, a crucial aspect of coping with SWSD. 

  • Managing seniority rankings easily allows for fair and balanced scheduling. This can ensure that night shifts or rotating shifts are equitably distributed, preventing the same employees from consistently working night shifts which can lead to SWSD. 

  • Custom reports can provide insights into scheduling trends and help identify areas where changes might be needed to reduce the risk of SWSD, such as adjusting the frequency of night shifts or the duration of breaks between shift cycles. 


By simplifying scheduling, enhancing transparency, and ensuring fair shift distribution, ShiftLink plays a significant role in creating work schedules that support the health and well-being of shift workers. Request a demo today or send us an email to learn more.  




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