Shift Work Sleep Disorder – a Helpful Guide to Better Sleep

By: Ryan Poppie Reading Time: 10 minutes

Woman suffering from shift work sleep disorder
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Some people love working at night and find many benefits to performing the second or third shift. Working at night is calmer and quieter for many jobs, and getting far more accomplished is possible. However, you do risk experiencing a shift work sleep disorder.  Dig in to learn more.

The commute is often far more accessible, the pay is sometimes better, and night workers have more time during the day to run errands and do other things. As with everything, though, there are downsides, too. The most significant disadvantage to working the night shift is its negative effect on workers’ natural sleep cycles. Night shift sleep disorders – significantly shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) – are detrimental to individual health and can cause long-lasting effects.

If you are someone who works at night, whether it’s because you love it or because you’re stuck with it, read on to learn more about the connections between working while the world is sleeping, how it affects your overall health, and what you can do to counteract it.

If you are someone who works at night, whether it’s because you love it or because you’re stuck with it, read on to learn more about the connections between working while the world is sleeping, how it affects your overall health, and what you can do to counteract it.

However, even those who work during the day can experience sleep disorders.

Check out this Sleep Disorders Guide

What is a Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

People who work nights may experience several sleep problems due to their unconventional work schedules.

Night-shift sleep disorders may include insomnia or narcolepsy. Insomnia is when an individual has difficulty falling or staying asleep for long periods. On the other hand, narcolepsy is a condition that results in the afflicted person falling asleep suddenly at unpredictable times due to extreme sleepiness.

However, both conditions are merely symptoms of a more significant and overarching problem.

According to a random study involving 1163 participants:

“The prevalence of sleep work disorder was 32.1% among night workers and 10.1% in day workers.” And of those participants, Severe Shift Work Disorder “(SSWD) was present in 9.1% of night workers and 1.3% of day workers.” (source: NIH)

Furthermore, that same study found that:

The prevalence of insomnia and/or sleepiness was 32% in permanent night workers, 26% in rotating shift workers and 18% in day workers.”

However, a more extensive recent study suggests this problem may be far more prevalent than we had previously thought. Five studies were included in this analysis of 10,141 participants.

That study found that “The prevalence of insomnia in shift workers ranged from 12.8% to 76.4%, higher than estimated for the general population. Moreover, a higher prevalence was observed among women and singles, and there was no signi?cant variation with age and profession.”

While many of us could benefit from more sleep and better quality sleep, it’s undeniable that shift work sleep disorder is a far greater concern for those of you working night shifts or rotating shifts. SWSDs can also be referred to as night shift sleep disorder and night shift fatigue syndrome; they are all interchangeable.

What are the Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Night workers and rotating shift workers experience many symptoms like insomnia and narcolepsy; between 25-30% of workers report these symptoms. If left unchecked and untreated, these symptoms can lead to a shift work sleep disorder diagnosis down the road.

Even workers who get enough hours of sleep can suffer fWoman with shift work sleep disorderrom these symptoms and this disorder. Our internal clocks are programmed for us to sleep at night. When we get the bulk of our rest during daytime hours, our bodies will try to wake us up repeatedly.

Why are we programmed this way? Shift work sleep disorder results from a mismatch between your internal clock and the external environment. Each of these affects both the duration of your sleep and the timing.

Historically, humans have risen with the sun and slept just after the sun had set. The visual cue from sunlight sets the schedule for our internal clock during a 24-hour day. And it’s only recently in our human history that working outside these daytime hours has become much more common.

Insomnia and extreme tiredness are not the only shift work sleep disorder symptoms.

People who suffer from SWSD are perpetually tired. They are sleepy whether they are working or at home. Often, they will feel exhausted even after sleeping for seven to nine solid hours. Even when they do sleep, the sleep they get does not feel energizing or refreshing. And good sleep isn’t something you can bank for a later time; it must be had each night.

Over time, people suffering from shift work sleep disorder will develop an extreme lack of energy and likely have difficulty concentrating on anything for a long time. These feelings can lead to depression or anger issues.

However, it’s not just those who suffer from SWSD who are affected. Many people find that their exhaustion and attitude hurt their relationships with others.

The symptoms of shift work sleep disorder will only increase if left unaddressed. Excessive tiredness and the symptoms it creates build up and get worse over time. While this may not sound like a huge problem, sleep is vital to life, like food, air, and water.

If you work an unnatural shift and have the following symptoms, you may be suffering from shift work sleep disorder:

  • Insomnia
  • Hypersomnia: excessive sleepiness at unwanted times
  • Decreased alertness
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Always looking sleepy
  • Poor work performance
  • Memory issues
  • Struggling to stay awake
  • Falling asleep while driving

As many shift workers are employed in factories, imagine how decreased alertness can affect your job and safety.

If you have any of the above symptoms and feel you might have an SWSD, you should immediately talk to your healthcare provider. Remember, you can’t put sleep in the bank, and you cannot make it up later.

What are the Consequences of Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

High-quality sleep is as essential to your health as eating and exercising. Everyone is guilty of getting too little rest now and then, but skipping out on adequate shuteye regularly can result in long-term health problems.

Ongoing lack of sleep can lead to obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and depression. Sleep boosts our immune systems and promotes overall mental well-being. Some people who experience long-term sleep issues turn to drugs or alcohol for relief, which can lead to addiction.

Furthermore, operating on too little sleep can be dangerous, especially if you have a high-pressure job that includes operating heavy machinery or saving lives in the medical field.

People who experience extreme drowsiness sometimes fall asleep for a few seconds without even knowing it, and in some professions, a few seconds can result in injury or even death.

Some researchers even believe sleepiness may have led to numerous significant catastrophes in contemporary world history, including the Chornobyl disaster, a nuclear power plant disaster in Pennsylvania, and Exxon’s massive Alaskan oil spill.

How to Diagnose Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Man with shift work disorder

Do you have this feeling?

The criteria for a diagnosis of an SWSD are:

  • It would be best to have insomnia symptoms when trying to sleep and/or suffer from excessive sleepiness while you wake.
  • You must be getting less sleep than is normal (7-8 hours are ideal) due to a work schedule that interferes with your internal clock and sleep schedule. Losing as many as four hours of sleep per night is typical.
  • You must suffer from symptoms consistent with your work schedule for three months or longer.
  • Your symptoms should not be attributed to a medical condition, medication side effects, poor sleep practices, or drug or alcohol abuse.

If you recognize any of the above in your sleep history, the first step is to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. At your appointment, your doctor will ask you many questions about your sleep patterns, sleep issues, work schedule, medical history, and medications.

A physical exam is the first step, but you’ll also be asked to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks. You may even be asked to conduct an actigraphy test at home.

An actigraphy test is non-invasive and painless. You wear an ankle or wrist monitor for a couple of weeks that will measure several critical metrics and help inform your physician’s diagnosis.

If your sleep diary and an actigraphy test indicate a disturbed sleep pattern, your doctor will diagnose you with an SWSD. However, additional tests like polysomnography (sleep study) or MSLT could be required if signs are inconclusive. They will want to rule out the possibility that another condition is responsible for your sleep issues.

These methods will help your doctor determine whether you suffer from shift work sleep disorder or some other night shift sleep issue. Then, they can choose a course of action to help them get better rest moving forward.

And while it’s not relevant to this guide, there are many types of sleep disorders you don’t want to confuse with an SWSD.

Causes of Shift Work Sleep Disorders

Various factors cause shift work sleep disorders. Even though the causes can be different, the result remains the same: The body’s internal clock and natural sleep cycle will be disrupted, and the quality of your sleep will suffer.

These eight factors can cause SWSDs:

  1. Physical, like an ulcer
  2. Medical, like asthma
  3. Environmental, like drugs or alcohol
  4. Psychological, like anxiety or depression
  5. Night shifts or rotating, as you know
  6. Medications, as these affect people differently
  7. Genetics, like narcolepsy
  8. Age

Around half the people over 65 have a sleep disorder. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

Preventing Shift Work Sleep Disorders

We’re just now beginning to understand the incredible importance of getting enough sleep. These tips will help whether you work a night/rotating shift.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), following these best practices will help you get more restful and longer sleep:

  1. Do not eat large meals before you go to bed.
  2. Do not drink alcohol or caffeine before bed.
  3. Do not nap during your waking time.
  4. Do not smoke cigarettes or ingest any nicotine.
  5. Do not watch the clock and put pressure on yourself.
  6. Sleep in a quiet, calm, and dark bedroom.
  7. Develop a consistent sleep schedule for waking and sleeping.
  8. Get more daily exercise or movement, even if it’s walking.
  9. Take any electronic devices out of your bedroom.

According to the Sleep Foundation, blue light from your devices affects your ability to produce melatonin, an essential sleep hormone. Also, noises from your devices or blinking lights will disrupt your sleep. And if using one of these devices before bedtime, your mind may be too stimulated to fall asleep.

If removing your electronic devices is problematic, you can turn off the wifi and the machines.

Living with a Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Essential oilsGood sleep hygiene (your sleep habits) is the first step to sleeping better, even if your schedule is problematic. Not practicing good sleep habits will have the opposite effect.

Use the tips in this article to your advantage. You can learn to master each separately so you don’t feel overwhelmed. But if you’re the type of person to jump right into things, try incorporating several at once.

Your diet might also be impacting the quality of your sleep. This goes beyond not eating or drinking certain substances before bed. The problem with diet is that food and beverages affect each of us differently.

If you suspect your diet contributes to your sleep issues, ask your doctor to perform some tests and make recommendations.

Other factors can help you fall asleep if you’re suffering from a sleep disorder, such as:

  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Take a warm bath or shower.
  • Diffuse lavender oil or similar essential oil.
  • Drink chamomile tea or warm milk.
  • Try meditation.

These should be done right before trying to fall asleep. Experiment and see what works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your health. We are each unique in that way.

Treatments for Shift Work Sleep Disorders

Many of the above can treat SWSD just as they can prevent them. We can’t be too definitive here as everyone’s lifestyle habits, diet, and medication use differ wildly.

However, in general, according to an article published in Healthline, these tips will help you treat whatever sleep disorder you’re dealing with:

Medical Treatments

Medical treatments for your SWSD can include any of the following:

  • A dental guard for teeth grinding
  • Sleeping pills
  • Medication for an underlying condition responsible for your issues
  • Breathing device if you have sleep apnea
  • Melatonin supplements
  • Cold medicines that make you drowsy, like Nyquil

However, not all of these are healthy in the long or even short term. But getting proper sleep is likely more critical for your health than issues one of the above might cause.

Lifestyle Changes

Woman with glass of waterLifestyle changes can enormously impact your sleep quality; you can pair these with medication if your doctor prescribes them. The tips and best practices in this guide will help prevent SWSDs.

Other lifestyle changes you should try include:

  • Maintain a healthy weight for your height and activity level.
  • Reduce stress by stretching or performing yoga before bed.
  • Drink less water and other beverages before bed to limit nighttime bathroom trips.
  • Limit your carbohydrate intake during your last meal of the day.

If you work long hours during the week and sleep extended on the weekends, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Remember, a consistent sleep schedule combined with good sleep habits is essential.

You can improve your sleep. And you have our handy guide so you know exactly how to prevent or treat your shift work sleep disorder. Now all you have to do is begin putting these tips and treatments into practice and, of course, see a physician.

What You Sleep on Matters

Have you ever watched a movie or TV series that involves a prison scene? Have you ever wondered how you could sleep on a cold hard slab? Luckily you have a proper bed. But don’t discount the effects a high-quality mattress or topper can have on your sleep quality.

The Beloit Mattress Company has mattresses and toppers for all sleepers, regardless of your circumstances and needs. Check out our handcrafted beds today.

Premium mattress toppers are becoming more popular because they can improve your comfort in bed, and increased comfort will help you sleep better. If your mattress isn’t the problem, consider getting a quality topper to pair with it.

The Beloit Mattress Company is a family-owned and operated factory direct mattress company located in the heart of the U.S. We’ve been handcrafting high-quality, all-natural fabric mattresses, using time-tested practices, one at a time, out of Beloit, Wisconsin, since 1929.


Does shift work cause sleep problems?

Shift work can cause shift work sleep disorders, particularly night and rotating shifts. However, for many people, there is often more than one factor to blame for your SWSD. Performing the best practices in this guide to better sleep can help.

What helps with shift work sleep disorder?

SWSDs are caused by working shifts outside the regular daylight or rotating shifts.
But other factors can contribute to it. Better sleep habits, dietary and lifestyle changes, and the tips in this article will help you overcome your shift work sleep disorder.

What are the two significant symptoms of shift work disorder?

Insomnia and narcolepsy are two prominent symptoms of a shift work disorder. However, there are many more symptoms that you should be aware of if your work schedule does not allow you to have a natural sleep and wake schedule. Check out the signs in this guide to know what to look for.

How is shift work sleep disorder diagnosed?

A proper diagnosis of a sleep disorder should come from a qualified doctor. It should include a physical exam, questions about your sleep history and habits, and tests to rule out underlying medical conditions that may be the root cause of your sleep disorder. And if these aren’t sufficient, there are some advanced ways to diagnose better an SWSD, like polysomnography (sleep study) or MSLT.




About Ryan Poppie

Ryan Poppie, President and Chief Bedmaker at The Beloit Mattress Company. He's not just a mattress maker but a true expert in sleep. Leading a 4th generation family business, Ryan uses his deep sleep knowledge to ensure every mattress made gives his customers the best rest possible. Each custom mattress is handcrafted to show his love for sleep and how it can improve our lives. With his team, Ryan's passion is to improve your quality of life through a better night's sleep.

Read Full Bio
We look forward to serving you. Don't forget your coupon! Visit a Store