Shift Workers and Sleep: Does it Affect Your Sleep?

Shift Workers and Sleep: Does it Affect Your Sleep?

A shift worker is someone who will work shifts outside of the conventional work hours, which range from 7 am to 7 pm. Working outside of this time bracket can place you into the category of a shift worker.

Some of the most common shift workers are those who are working within the medical industry, factory workers, cleaning staff and supermarket work, however, any job can implement night work as part of its scheduling and make use of all 24 hours in the day.

Shift workers will be set into divided and scheduled shifts that will often rotate in order to avoid health risks. 

Types of Shift Work

Working outside of the regular work hours means that you can fall into any type of shift work. These can be sorted into the following categories.

Night shift

A night shift is typically considered to be any type of work that takes place after midnight. They are beneficial for people who prefer to be awake at night or who find themselves to be the most productive at this time. There are a lot of rules that follow working night shifts such as how many night shifts you are able to work. You must not work more than eight hours in a 24 hour period. If you are working more than that, it is okay providing it averages out at 8 over a 17 week period.

Evening shifts

Evening shifts are typically considered to be any shift that starts after 5 pm. If you have a second job, working evening shifts can be a great option, especially for people who have other commitments during the day, such as school. The disadvantage to this is waking up during the night in order to get ready for work. This can mean that you lose sleep if you are not going to bed early enough.

Morning shifts

An early morning shift will typically fall between 4 am and 8 am, but this can vary depending on individual company decisions. This particular type of shift is popular for cleaners. Those who do not have any requirements to attend to during the day can often benefit from working a morning shift. The disadvantage of this is you will more than likely sleep for the remainder of the day. This can make it difficult to attend to what you need to do.

Does shift work affect sleep?

As you can imagine, working through the night can disrupt the typical sleep pattern. Not getting enough sleep can also cause further issues outside of your sleep, such as wider health issues, socialisation and mental health.

When we work night shifts we are going against our bodies' natural body clock when it signifies that it is time for us to go to sleep and this is based on our exposure to the sunlight. Therefore, working night shifts can increase your chances of being sleep deprived, especially since you are expected to catch up on your sleep during the day when it is light. This can make it increasingly difficult to become well-rested.

You are at a higher risk of insomnia as a result of long term sleep deprivation. In addition, there are other risks that come with night shifts such as a poor diet. You are much more inclined to consume food during unconventional hours with higher consumption of unhealthy foods in comparison to those who work regular hours during the day.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift Work Sleep Disorder is classed as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder caused by the failure to align the body with the circadian rhythms. Our body will notify us when it is time for bed based upon our exposure to light and darkness, but when we work against this, it can cause the following symptoms.

Mood

Due to the risk of not being well-rested, you can experience problems with your mood. This can differ from person to person, but some common feelings are impatience and irritability as well as feelings of depression. If you are working night shifts, you are less inclined to want to interact socially.

There is also research to suggest that people who do shift work are generally less happy, experience feelings of loneliness and overall have a harder time dealing with their mental health. Having an interrupted circadian rhythm is thought to increase your chances of developing a mood disorder.

Work Performance

Another effect of shift work is the risk of decreased work performance and those who struggle with work shift disorder are much more inclined to experience difficulty concentrating, being able to pay attention at work and remember work-related tasks.

Therefore, it is plausible that you are more likely to struggle with your performance at work. This can also be extended into other areas of your life where you feel that your concentration and performance are affected.

Health

There is growing evidence that suggests shift work can have an effect on your overall health. As well as health issues relating to mental disorders, there are also connections with fatigue, sleep disorders, lack of nutrition, increased risk of some cancers, obesity, diabetes and asthma.

If you do shift work, it is important that you ensure you are looking after yourself and attempting to get as much of a regular sleep pattern as you are able to. Ensure you also keep your nutrition up as much as possible by eating the right foods and eating at regular times.

Insomnia

Those who suffer from shift work disorders are likely to have difficulty falling asleep and being able to stay asleep. This can vary depending on the type of shift you are working. For example, those who work morning shifts are more likely to struggle with falling asleep, but those who work night shifts are most likely going to struggle with staying asleep for there are more distractions during the day.

Alongside insomnia can be the issue of excessive sleepiness, as well as the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Impairment to your memory
  • Higher risk of accidents
  • Behavioural problems
  • Sleep dissatisfaction

How to reduce the symptoms of shift work disorder

It is estimated that those who partake in shift work are getting between one and four hours less sleep than the average. There are some ways that you can best reduce the symptoms of shift work disorder, such as reducing your exposure to light once you had finished your shift. This will reduce the risk of natural sunlight affecting your daytime body clock.

If you can create a bedtime ritual, providing you do not have one already, this can be a great way to prepare yourself to sleep. Especially if your body recognises this and it puts it into practice to remind your body it is time to rest. On your days off, it is important that you still try to incorporate this.

Try to create an environment at home where it is easier for you to be able to rest. This can involve asking family and friends to be quiet or creating a dark environment that makes it much better to fall and stay asleep.

Since there is a higher risk for interruptions during the day, this can involve outside noise in addition to those within your own home. Perhaps try and place a do not disturb plaque on the door so that visitors do not interrupt your sleep. If you feel that these are working and your symptoms of shift work disorder reducing then noting where you can see the issues are particularly helpful.

Below are some useful tips to minimise side effects:

  • Avoid a long commute to work as this can add to your time away from resting
  • Get naps in where you are able to
  • Do not drive if you are tired or not well-rested
  • Try to participate in exercise where possible
  • Avoid getting your energy from caffeine-related drinks and get it from having enough sleep

How should you sleep working shifts?

We are promoting the fact that night workers should get as much as possible, but with that being said, you might be asking what the best method for sleeping is.

Firstly, it is incredibly important that you try to find a suitable sleep schedule that also fits your needs and requirements outside of your work life. You are going to need a healthy seven to eight hours a day, so trying to ensure you get this amount can be very important.

If you are working a regular shift, it is important that find some regular pattern to your sleep in addition. This will help bring some routine into your schedule.

Some smaller ways that you are able to enhance your sleep routine is by the following:

  • Avoid using the bedroom to perform tasks that are not related to relaxation. This will allow you to fall asleep much quicker. Try to limit your phone usage before bed and avoid stressful phone calls.
  • Make the room as dark as you can make it in order to imitate the natural environment of nighttime. This can be done in a number of different ways, such as using an eye mask to sleep with, buying blackout blinds or curtains.
  • Find time to go for a walk, or do something relaxing before you go to bed. For example, have a bath. Some people might benefit from a workout instead as regular exercise can help to encourage a good sleep pattern. With this in mind, try to aim for a 3-hour gap between your workout and going to bed as it could actually do the opposite and keep you awake.
  • Try to avoid drinking energy drinks and coffee as this may make it increasingly for you to fall asleep after your shift.
  • Invest in good quality bedding and ensure that the place in which you are sleeping is comfortable. It is highly recommended that you use a bed and do not fall asleep elsewhere.
  • Shift work can make it difficult to find time for us to sleep and eat, meaning that we consume and meal and then go straight to bed. However, as hard as it may be, avoiding meals that are high in fat can make it easier for you to fall asleep. You want to ensure that you are leaving at a reasonable time, such as 3 hours in order to prevent indigestion and acid reflux that can be uncomfortable.

Tip for shift working

The first night that you are due to start shift working can be very difficult, especially if you are not used to working these shifts. Your body is not in this routine and so the chances of you being tired are high. However, try to get as much extra sleep as you are able to prior to the first shift. This is because you are at risk of being awake for 24 hours if you are unable to get a decent sleep before your shift is due to start.

If you are able to, try and eat the main meal, whether that be breakfast, lunch or dinner before you start the shift, whilst having another during your shift. It would also be ideal if you had a lighter meal once you have gotten home, but before you are due to go to sleep.

Ensure that you remain hydrated during your shift. This can be difficult if you are particularly busy, but it is important that you stay hydrated. However, you want to avoid coffee towards the end of your shift.

Some workers, especially those who are in the medical industry are often allowed to take naps or sleep for a short amount of time. It is important that you take this opportunity to rest rather than using it to go on your phone or speak to other colleagues.

When it comes to the end of your shift, consider whether you are too tired to drive yourself home. In the instance that you are, you may want to consider getting home via taxi or another driver. This will remove the risk of an accident caused by a lack of sleep. It is estimated that almost 100,000 accidents a year are caused by drivers who were doing so when they were tired. Most of these accidents occurred between midnight and 6 am.

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