We live in a fast paced, 24/7 access society. Doctors, nurses, police officers, supermarket staff, and sometimes even office workers, are expected to be available at all times of the day and night. Under these circumstances, the thing that is often compromised is sleep. Sleep loss and fatigue are two of the most common problems for shift workers. On average, night-shift workers get two to three hours less sleep per 24 hours than any other worker (Better Health Channel).
Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) consists of symptoms of insomnia or excessive sleepiness that occur in relation to work schedules outside the usual “9 – 5, Monday – Friday”. However, not everyone who works “odd” hours suffers from shift work sleep disorder. A survey of Australian workers found that 32% of night workers suffered from shift work disorder, including 9% with a severe problem (Australian Medical Association).
Symptoms you might be suffering shift work sleep disorder
- excessive sleepiness, on and off the job
- difficulty concentrating
- lack of energy
- sleep that feels incomplete or not refreshing
- depression or moodiness
Our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep at night and to be alert during the day. We all have a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm. At night, the circadian pacemaker releases the sleep hormone melatonin from the pineal gland, which causes you to feel less alert and raises your desire to sleep. Working against this rhythm gives us that “jet lagged” feeling but without the perks of a holiday, meaning sleep during the day will reduce your sleep quality and quantity, compared to night-time sleep.
Something all shift workers need to be wary of is their mental and physical health. Shift workers will often find it more difficult to concentrate, resulting in them being more prone to accidents. Research suggests that shift workers are six times more likely to be in a fatigue-related road accident than other workers. It is also said that twenty-four hours without sleep is as dangerous as driving with 0.08 blood alcohol content (Sleep Health Foundation).
Our tips to help shift workers sleep better
- Lighting – light is what our body uses to figure out when it is time to wake and when it is time to sleep. It is important that we sleep in darkness. Try to avoid exposure to early-morning daylight on your way home by wearing sunglasses.
- Temperature – keep the bedroom cool, as we can become quite restless when we’re hot and bothered.
- Sound – this might mean asking household members to be quiet during the day when you are sleeping. Notify friends and family of your working hours so that they do not disturb you.
- Food – try to eat light meals and healthy snacks to avoid the drowsiness and sluggish feeling that come with heavy meals and sugary foods.
- Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are all stimulants that should be avoided for at least 5 hours before sleep.
- Electronics – avoid stimulating activities like video games prior to bedtime. Beware of exposure to blue light emitted from digital devices, such as your phone, tablet, or television, before you go to bed after a night shift.
- Stay away from activities that make you feel more alert (e.g. strenuous exercise).
- Have a nap, preferably in the early afternoon, before your night shift (between 20-30 minutes). This will make you more alert on the job.
- Do not delay going to bed. The longer you delay going to bed, the more awake you are likely to become.
Getting sleep when you are working against your body clock can be a difficult task. So, where possible it is important to try and maintain a somewhat normal sleep schedule. The sleep challenges faced by shift workers aren’t easy to overcome but having the right sleep support and sleep environment can definitely make all the difference. The healthy practices mentioned, as well as routine, can help ease the effects of shift work. Overall, the most important thing is making sleep a priority.
Better Health Channel (Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria), 2020, Shiftwork, [online] Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/shiftwork
Di Milia L, Waage S, Pallesen S, Bjorvatn B. Shift work disorder in a random population sample–prevalence and comorbidities. PLOS One 2013; 8: e55306.
Australian Medical Association, 2020, Sleep loss and circadian disruption in shift work: health burden and management, [online] Available at: https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2013/199/8/sleep-loss-and-circadian-disruption-shift-work-health-burden-and-management
Hannah Nicholas (Medical News Today), 2017, Life hacks: How to cope with night shifts, [online] Available at: