What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is a condition where people who work outside the normal 9-to-5 work schedule don't get enough sleep because of their irregular or unusual sleep patterns. It is considered a disorder because of the large number of people who experience excessive sleepiness, fatigue, and sleep disturbance as a result of adjusting to sleep patterns around their work schedule.

Your circadian rhythm matches the activity of your body to the 24-hour day. Your normal patterns of brain-wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities are linked to this 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms are important in determining human sleeping patterns and optimal body functioning.

However, in contemporary society, many people are forced to ignore that natural rhythm in order to make ends meet by working nights or performing "shift work." Shift work is a generalized term used to describe work done on any of the following: night-time shifts, early-morning shifts, employer-arranged irregular schedules, and rotating shifts. Shift work sleep disorder is most common among people who have to switch between morning, afternoon, and nighttime shifts.

Why Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder a Problem?

Shift work can disrupt your body's circadian rhythm and cause the following problems:

  • insomnia
  • sleepiness at work
  • fatigue
  • reduced work performance
  • difficulties in romantic and social relationships
  • depression
  • irritability
  • a disrupted sleep schedule

One major concern with shift work sleep disorder is that many people who suffer from it are in potentially hazardous or dangerous jobs, such as:

  • police officers
  • firefighters
  • semi-truck drivers
  • hospital staff
  • ship captains
  • astronauts
  • pilots

Recent catastrophes such as the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster were both partially blamed on worker fatigue.

Sleep specialists recommend that people who work in shifts need to pay special attention to their sleep environment and preparation for sleep. This includes:

  • avoiding stimulants several hours before sleeping
  • sleeping in a dark, quiet room
  • following a sleep routine
  • eating healthy
  • possibly sneaking in a short nap if you feel tired

Learn more about ways to sleep better.

If those things don't work and you still feel tired or fatigued during your work, you might want to consult your doctor or a sleep specialist.