The Correlation Between Shift Work and Sleep

Working nine to five is the standard for most Americans, but over 22 million Americans participate in shift work. Shift work is defined as any schedule that does not strictly adhere to a day shift, with a typical ‘nine to five’ or similar hours. While many people are forced to adjust to odd work hours to accommodate the need to keep things running 24 hours a day, it doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do. In fact, several problems can arise for shift workers, including problems with sleep and getting enough snooze time.

How can you help your body and mind come to terms with a daily life that isn’t set to the typical round the clock schedule? What problems do you face when deciding to work an odd shift? Taking a look at the different types of shifts, the professions in which they come into play, the way these off hours can have an effect on your sleep and your life, and how to work around this and remain healthy are essential to surviving a life working something other than a standard day shift.

What is Shift Work?

Shift work can be many things. Whether you work an evening shift (between 1:00 pm and midnight), a graveyard shift (between 10:00 pm and 8:00 am) a rotating shift (mornings one week, evenings the next, and so on), or long shifts (24 hours on, 48 off), you’re subjecting yourself to shift work, and an unusual set of circumstances that your body and mind aren’t naturally programmed to follow.


Common Professions with Shift Work

There are a number of industries in which shift work is required, and while some choose shift work, others have little or no choice about accepting a non-standard shift. Consider the issues faced in different shift work positions.

Public servants

Police, firefighters, emergency medical professionals and responders, and security guards are charged with the protection of the public and sometimes face extremely dangerous situations. No matter what time it is, they have to be ready to go, and that means around the clockwork. Suffering from lack of sleep could mean someone’s life, including their own, and whether working long 24-hour shifts or overnight shifts, additional danger comes with that sort of expectation.

Medical professionals

Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff often work 24-hour shifts or overnight hours (even a 12-hour shift can be difficult) with little or no sleep. Because they have to be on the ball to respond with emergency care and be able to operate – sometimes literally – without regular sleep hours, it’s vital for these professionals to learn how to balance rest and recuperation the same way they advise their patients.

Industrial and manufacturing workers

Being alert is vital when working with heavy machinery or on an assembly line. However, because warehouses and production lines tend to run round the clock now for higher production levels, many employees are subjected to long overtime hours or irregular shifts, which can increase the risk of injury or mistakes in production design.

Hospitality, casino, and retail workers

The days when stores shut down at 10:00 pm and hotel desks weren’t manned after 9:00 pm are gone. Now, the world caters to the need for service 24-7, and dealing with customer service – in person or over the phone – is a completely different animal after regular office hours.

Transportation workers

Bus drivers, air traffic controllers, railroad engineers, and truck drivers all face long and overnight hours. This is particularly dangerous, considering that drowsy driving is a leading cause of accidents and that those in control of mass transportation have the lives of dozens or even thousands in their hands.

Others who may see swing shifts include customer service representatives, meteorology professionals, stockers, media and telecom professionals, broadcasters, internet or public utility workers, funeral and death care workers, and oilfield professionals.


How Does Shift Work Affect You?

In rare cases, shift work won’t have many – or any if you’re an extremely lucky individual – effects on sleep or health. There are those who are ‘night owls’ who thrive on working the evening shift and do well with overnight shifts, just like there are ‘morning people’ who can work a very early shift without cause for concern. However, the vast majority of humans have bodies that stress to them the need for a standard ‘ebb and flow’ like the tides in the ocean because our makeup is just as attuned to the day and night cycles as that natural phenomenon.

The number one problem stemming from shift work is an issue with getting enough sleep. Only about 63% of shift workers feel their schedules allow them enough time for sleep (as opposed to 89% of non-shift workers). In fact, working odd or rotating shifts can cause all sorts of problems with your sleep schedule.

That’s because your body has a natural circadian rhythm – a cycle in which it operates that instinctively has you awake during the day and ready to sleep at night, with the need for meals and other daily functions regulated as daytime habits. Working against this is difficult because you’re asking your mind and body to operate against its natural schedule, meaning you’re naturally sleepy during the times you are working, no matter how much sleep you get.

Our circadian rhythm automatically dictates that, in general, we need to sleep during certain hours. In fact, studies show that most people, regardless of their schedule, experience the most extreme tiredness between midnight and 7:00 am and then again between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 pm. This is in relation to our instinctive expectation of the way a day and night rotate in a cycle. We function best following the same cycle.

On average, a shift worker gets 2 to 4 hours less sleep every 24 hours than a day shift worker. That can add up quickly to a severe loss of sleep. In addition, the sleep lost is usually taken from the two most important sleep cycles – stage 2, which is the dominant cycle, as well as REM sleep. Unless you learn to adjust, which some doctors and scientists agree might never happen, and others say can take up to a month to do, you run the risk of developing shift work sleep disorder.


Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Now a clinically diagnosed problem with the number of people suffering from the ailment (about 20 to 30% of shift workers, which make up 15 to 20% of the population), shift work sleep disorder is a chronic problem with sleep. Symptoms include:

 Excessive sleepiness
 Difficulty falling or staying asleep
 Micro sleep (falling asleep for 2-3 seconds during other activities)
 Lack of energy
 Difficulty concentrating
 Poor mood or irritability
 Digestive issues
 Compromised immune system and a higher risk of infection and illness



In fact, even larger health problems can stem from SWSD, including a greater risk of breast and prostate cancer (likely due to the hormone imbalances caused by lack of sleep), higher cholesterol levels, heart disease, obesity, metabolic issues, and severe or chronic digestive diseases.

The Risks Associated with Shift Work

Aside from being hard on your health, shift work and lack of sleep can lead to more detrimental issues that become dangerous. With the increased and persistent sleepiness, your alertness while driving, particularly on the way home from work, causes a greater risk of accident from drowsy driving. In fact, a high percentage of accidents can be contributed to such circumstances.

Consider that major disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have been partially attributed to long and unusual shifts that have led to lack of focus and mistakes. And because a number of shift workers are responsible for things like transportation and factory work, it can raise the rate of incident reports when shift workers don’t receive the amount of rest necessary to function with alertness.

Having such issues with sleep can lead to injuries on the job – for you as well as your coworkers – and it can cause costly mistakes. Because of your weakened immune system and the need to catch up on sleep, you’re more likely to use up sick time faster or call in even if you don’t have paid time off. This is difficult for you as well as your employer, putting more pressure on others who work swing shifts and causing tension on the job.

Social and Family Issues

Most of society plan events and gatherings around the typical day shift. That means that working other hours can interfere with your social life and your ability to enjoy family time. For example, if you’re working an evening shift, you likely aren’t available to attend your children’s school functions or soccer games. If you work overnight, it’s difficult to join friends out on the town for dinner or drinks. Even family functions and holidays can be interrupted by shifts that don’t adhere to the ‘norm’.

Aside from all other circumstances involved in shift work and lack of sleep, not being able to enjoy the typical day to day fun of society at large can cost you mental and emotional trauma, leading to depression and anxiety. This can become a serious problem over time and lead to the need for medical intervention and treatment if not addressed through other methods.

Additional Concerns

In order to self-medicate in a way that assists with a better sleep schedule during shift work, many people opt to use stimulants like caffeine in overabundance during their waking hours to improve alertness and performance during their shifts. On the other side of things, they might rely on sleep aids – over the counter or prescription – to get the proper sleep during those odd sleep hours. Others will rely on alcohol to help ease them off to sleep. In some cases, the need for more stimulation leads to the use of other substances as well.

It can become such a habit that it leads to abuse or addiction of the substances that should be helpful. Breeding a dependence on any substance compromises your health, and when you’re already having trouble, it can be detrimental to your work and personal life.

With so many issues hanging overhead and seeming ominous, how can you possibly avoid the harmful aspects of shift work and still manage to get by? There are plenty of ways to help your body and mind adjust to the difference in the work and sleep hours to the best of their ability. It just takes some discipline and determination to do so.

Coping with Shift Work

Initially, it’s going to be difficult to adjust to the schedule, regardless of when your actual hours are. This is due to the body and mind naturally working with the cycle of daylight and darkness to create a rhythm and a schedule. If you’re switching that up, you may need some external help when you begin. It’s okay to rely on caffeine to help you wake up in the ‘morning’ that you’ve set for yourself and perhaps take something mild to help you fall asleep and stay asleep when it’s time for bed, such as melatonin (something produced naturally in the body any way that may need to be supplemented to get you physically adjusted to the new schedule). However, relying on these things permanently is not a solution and will likely only lead to additional sleep loss in the end.

Prescription sleep aids are not the best choice, either. In fact, a doctor will likely only prescribe these for a short time in order to help you in the initial phase of the transition. These can be habit forming if taken too long and lose their effectiveness over time. Alcohol, likewise, is not a great option. While having a drink may help you relax and fall asleep for the first couple of weeks, the effects of alcohol in your body lead to prolonged restless sleep and waking several times during the night.

Getting Enough Sleep

In order to get the rest you need, you’ll have to set a schedule and stick to it. Take the time to find the schedule that works for you. For example, if you work an evening shift, it might make sense to stay up a little later so you have time to relax and wind down before bed and then wake up around nine or ten in the morning, so you can enjoy some daylight and run any necessary errands. If you work the night shift, you may want to sleep as soon as you get home, so you can awaken refreshed and perhaps even have time with friends and family before heading to work.

The essential part of this is assuring you make time for at least seven hours of sleep, as seven to nine hours are recommended for everyone. This will help you negate some of the effects of the swing shift schedule that lead to excessive tiredness.

Keeping to a Schedule

One of the most detrimental things you can do when trying to change your body’s circadian rhythm is to change up your sleep schedule. If you work the night shift five days a week, you shouldn’t sleep during the night on your days off. This only serves to keep your body guessing when it’s supposed to be alert and can lead to very foggy consciousness and an inability to focus or concentrate. Sleeping on the same schedule on a daily basis can really increase your chances of getting good, solid, restful sleep that isn’t interrupted due to the confusion of your mind and body.

Of course, if you work rotating shifts, this can be difficult. But there are ways to adjust to this as well. First, assure that your rotation is clockwise and not counterclockwise. If you work mornings one week, evenings the next, and nights the one after, it’s far more natural to adjust your sleep schedule if it’s mornings, then nights, then evenings. Your body has a natural progression that works best in a clockwise direction. This also allows you to slightly alter your sleep pattern during your days off so that you are more closely regulated to the next week’s sleep needs. For example, if you worked mornings and slept from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am and you’re headed into a week of evenings, try sleeping from 12:00 am to 8:00 am the first day off and then from 2:00 am to 10:00 am the second. This will assist in naturally falling into a sleep shift that suits the needs of your evening work hours.

Waking Up and Falling Asleep

In order to ‘trick’ your body and mind into following the new sleep schedule, it’s not built for, create a false day and night. When you wake up, expose yourself to bright lights. This will simulate sunlight and morning so that your body eventually begins to see it as morning so that you wake more easily each ‘day’. Consider purchasing a light box, which sits on a desk and plugs in, with several extremely bright bulbs to get your brain going. You can do this for as little as 15 to 30 minutes upon first waking – perhaps while you have your ‘morning’ cup of coffee.

Of course, you also need to simulate ‘night’ when you get off work to allow your body to ease into sleep better. If you’re leaving work as the sun is coming up, be sure to have some dark sunglasses – preferably the kind that wraps around – to block out the sunlight, as this will help keep your body from kicking into high alert and ‘daytime’ status. Keep lights off or dimmed in the home as you enter so that you aren’t stimulated. Make sure you have blackout curtains in your sleep space that allow you to darken the room as if it was actually nighttime while you sleep. Don’t sit down in front of a bright computer, television, or phone screen, either.

Pairing these behaviors can help reverse your circadian rhythm to better accommodate your work hours and help you get better, longer rest periods.

Avoid Interruptions

If you have family or roommates that you live with, or friends and family you are in contact with on a regular basis, make sure they all know your schedule. This will help avoid phone calls and excessive noise that could interrupt you during your sleep hours. Use earplugs in addition to your blackout curtains so that small noises that wouldn’t be a problem at night – the sound of someone in the shower or cooking, or the sound of street traffic – don’t awaken you.

Ask anyone you live with to avoid any unnecessary noise while you sleep. Of course, you can’t expect them to put their lives on hold, but that doesn’t mean they should feel comfortable dribbling a basketball or shouting across the house during your sleep time. Turn off your phone, too, if you think people might try to contact you. This can be the rudest interruption to your sleep since you’ll end up in a conversation and then likely be thinking about the topic instead of falling back asleep.

Controlling Work Hours

Maybe you can’t choose what shift you work or whether you rotate shifts, but you can have some limitations. You simply need to assert yourself wherever possible and try to avoid certain circumstances

Try to break up night shifts.

If you work exclusively at night, try to work no more than three nights in a row. Take your days off separately to break up the routine if possible. This will allow you to get a full eight hours of sleep and feel more refreshed without being overwhelmed.

  • Avoid extended work hours if you can.

While some professionals like doctors, nurses, and firefighters don’t have much choice in the matter, try not to work long shifts. Twelve-hour shifts can really eat into your sleep, and while you may have three days off working these long hours, it’s not worth the lost sleep.

  • In the same fashion, try to avoid extensive overtime.
  • Try to find a job with a short commute.

This helps in several ways. First, you’re behind the wheel a shorter amount of time, so there is less likelihood of drowsy driving and less chance of incidents. In addition, long commutes take more time away from your sleep and the daily routine to which you still have to adhere. If you’re driving over an hour each way and working a nine-hour shift, that’s eleven total hours, leaving you without much freedom or choice but to rush to sleep.

  • If you can suggest rotating shifts less frequently

For example, staying on one shift for three weeks instead of one before moving onto the next – you’re more likely to get better sleep. Rotating shifts frequently or having an irregular schedule can quickly drain you, never quite giving your body the chance to adjust to any schedule. Perhaps your employer will consider changing the frequency of rotations based on feedback from you and your coworkers.

Sleeping, Eating, and Drinking

The body needs three meals a day minimum, and it’s better to eat five smaller set of meals. However, this can be very difficult to do with swing shifts and graveyard shifts because your body is naturally hungrier during the day. If you adhere to an eating schedule along with your sleep schedule, you’ll be healthier and more alert with fewer digestive issues. Some tips on eating for shift work include:

 Adhere to a low-fat, high protein diet with plenty of vegetables to avoid unwanted lethargy.
 Space your meals just as you would on a daytime schedule, adjusting meal times appropriately for your schedule.
 Eat your largest meal ‘midday’, which likely falls during your work schedule lunch break. Never eat heavily just before sleeping, as your body won’t have a chance to properly digest the meal and will begin having metabolic issues while also storing more fat.
 Don’t eat more than a light snack three hours before bedtime in order to remind your body it should be winding down to go to sleep.

When it comes to drinks, make sure you’re staying hydrated. It’s not as natural to remember to drink water during these ‘off’ hours, so try to keep a water bottle around that you refill on breaks to avoid dehydration. If you’re finding caffeine to be a necessity, you can have a single cup of coffee in the morning and one midday, or you can replace it with a soda or green tea (which naturally has as much caffeine as coffee without the added acidity). Don’t imbibe any caffeine for at least three hours before going to bed to avoid restlessness and wakefulness.

As for sleep, there are ways to ‘cat nap’ throughout the rest of your day. For example, try to find time to power nap on your lunch break. This can help you feel refreshed. Just make sure you have about 15 minutes to really wake up before you have to go back to work. Also, when working on a night shift, try taking a short 45-minute nap just before you get ready to go in. This can help the body feel more like it’s getting up in the morning for a job. Naps, when feasible, can help reduce the prevalence of extreme tiredness and other problems associated with sleep deprivation.

You may be interested in: Should I Power Nap at Work?

Additional Tips for Shift Workers

Everyone has different needs, so maybe there are other things you can do to help get the proper self-care while also adhering to these difficult schedules. For example, if you find that you’re losing your alertness while on the job, try doing something active on your breaks to help refresh your consciousness and get your blood and endorphins flowing so you stay awake. Take a walk or do some light exercise rather than sitting and reading. This could help you be better off when you return to your duties.

If your work environment is not brightly lit, that could lead to episodes of micro sleep, which are dangerous. It’s crucial to make sure your work environment is conducive to productivity, and simulation of daylight with a brightly lit area is essential to increasing production and ensuring greater safety for workers and the company in general.

When it is time for bed, if you find it difficult to get drowsy, consider reading – but only for 15 to 30 minutes. This can help your brain wind down and focus on something other than the daily stress you face. You might also try meditation to help you reach a settled frame of mind and drift off easily.

If you find that you’re extremely drowsy when you drive to or from work, talk to coworkers. Perhaps they have trouble as well, and you could carpool so that the most alert of you does the bulk of the driving on any given shift’s start or end. If it’s a long commute, this is especially helpful since you can switch off with the ability to nap on the way home and recuperate just enough to get the driving out of the way safely.

For those with 24-plus hour shifts, there should be accommodations for napping when possible. Firefighters should have comfortable bunks, and doctors and nurses should have napping areas where they can catch a few minutes of rest between waves of emergencies. If this isn’t the case, try speaking to the management or your superior to get this in place. Considering that $40 billion is lost every year in the U.S. due to alertness related accidents, it would perhaps serve the employers’ purposes in healthcare as well as other industries to provide these accommodations, saving them more money in the long run.

Take Care of Your Body

While it may seem like there’s no time for ‘extras’ you have to remember that there are certain things that will hinder you more than help you if you cut them from your schedule. For example, showering daily will help you feel consistently refreshed, even if you happen to be lacking sleep on that given rotation of the planet. If showers relax you, take them before going to sleep, and if they invigorate you, take them when you wake up to prepare for your ‘day’.

Be sure to schedule your regular doctor and dentist appointments and don’t ignore any ailments. Just like any person working a nine to five shift, you have medical needs that must be addressed, and not taking the time out to maintain your health will only cause the problems to pile up.

Make time somewhere in your schedule for both family and social activities as well as personal time. While your schedule may be difficult, it’s therapeutic to spend time with loved ones as well as to partake of a hobby or activity that you enjoy. Whether you want to catch up on your favorite television show, go shopping, or have dinner with someone, make sure you’re still managing to get to these things on a regular and consistent – if infrequent – basis. This will help you maintain a healthy mindset and improve your mood overall.

The Bottom Line

When you consider that medical interns who work 24-hour shifts are twice as likely to be involved in a car accident and five times as likely to have a near-miss incident driving home from work, you can see how long shifts affect workers and that more than 10% of shift workers have shift work sleep disorder, you can understand how important it is to make what adjustments you can to your particular schedule to avoid sleep deprivation.

While shift work is necessary and can be lucrative with incentives like pay differential, it also adds a level of risk to the job. You could cause problems with your health, have an accident, or end up injured or making a grave error on the job due to inability to concentrate or just plain exhaustion. You can end up feeling like you don’t have any personal, family, or social time, which can lead to depression.