What is shift work sleep disorder?
Shift work sleep disorder is a disruption of normal sleep patterns caused by a non-traditional work schedule. Sleep may be interrupted, and a person can develop insomnia and feel excessively sleepy during waking hours.

What causes shift work sleep disorder?
A shift work sleep disorder can be caused by various factors, depending on work schedule and sleep environment. Sleeping during the day can be difficult due to inadequate darkness or quiet. Quality and duration of sleep can be disrupted by switching sleep times to accommodate a rotating work schedule. Shift workers sometimes skip out on sleep in order to participate in activities with their friends and family. Certainly, the emotional stress of being out of synch with your family or with daylight activities could contribute to anxiety and disrupted sleep.

What are the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder?
Although a person with shift work sleep disorder may get as much sleep as someone working a normal daytime schedule, the quality of their sleep can be impacted. Shift work sleep disorder symptoms include insomnia, excessive sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, and lack of energy. Shift work can also affect a person's motivation and memory. Due to these symptoms, there is an increased risk for accidents and work-related errors. Symptoms can take a physical toll, too, with increased incidence of digestive disorders, poor nutrition habits, menstrual cycle problems in women, and fatigue.

Who is at risk for shift work sleep disorder?
You might be at risk for a shift work sleep disorder if you work the evening, night, or graveyard shift. Those who work on a 24-hour "on call" schedule may be prone to disrupted sleep patterns. And shifts that rotate or split also put you at risk.

How is shift work sleep disorder treated?
Other than transitioning to a more conventional daytime work schedule, one of the most effective ways to cope with the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder is to improve sleep hygiene. Your sleep hygiene is all of your habits around sleep and bedtime - things like what time you go to bed, what time you rise, and how "sleep-friendly" your bedroom is.

Tips for improving your sleep hygiene:

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule – on your workdays and on your days off.
  • On your way home from an overnight shift at work, try to minimize your exposure to sunlight. Sunlight triggers wakefulness and makes it harder to get to sleep once you're home.
  • Once you are home, go to bed as soon as possible so you can fit in an adequate number of hours of sleep.
  • Set up your bedroom for maximum sleep potential. Install thick curtains or light-blocking shades over windows. Ask family members to avoid noisy activities while you sleep or use a white noise machine to drown out noise outside your bedroom.
  • Try to find time to take a nap during your "awake hours." Naps of no longer than 30 minutes have been linked to improved performance in shift workers.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
  • Increase your exposure to light (from sunlight or light boxes) during the time you should be awake.

Do I need to see a doctor about shift work sleep disorder?
If you modify your sleep hygiene and symptoms persist, ask your doctor about the right kind of sleep aid. This might mean taking a sleeping pill to help you get to sleep or a stimulant to reduce drowsiness at work. Find out more by reading "Sleep disorders: When to see a doctor."

Amy Toffelmire