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What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

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Certain occupations – like healthcare, factory work, and direct care professions, require that workers complete shifts at all hours of the day and night. Employers should care about shift work sleep disorders because they have a profound effect on business operations. By addressing the root of the issue, employers can reduce their own liability, as well as provide a safer and healthier place for employees to work.

Sleep disorders come with an increased risk for occupational injury, lead to decreased productivity, and can increase costs to employers for health insurance claims.

How Do Shift Sleep Disorders Occur?

When people work unusual hours, it affects their biological rhythms. This can have a drastic effect on a person’s sleep schedule and ability to function. It can also give rise to a condition physicians call shift work disorder, which disrupts a worker’s circadian rhythms and creates a plethora of symptoms.

A normal sleep schedule is vital to our health and well-being. Proper sleep helps us with memory, attention, and even mastery of skills. There are several classifications of sleep – REM sleep is where we dream, and non-REM sleep has three different stages. Stage 3 non-REM sleep is the most restorative time.

Our circadian rhythms control our sleep processes. Think of your circadian rhythm as a clock working in your brain – it runs on a 24-hour cycle and works according to the light-dark cycle. In other words, we’re naturally disposed to wake when it’s light; we experience a drowsy slump between 2-4pm, experience another jolt of alertness, and become sleepy again at night.

Disturbing this natural cycle – such as by working the night shift – can cause sleep disorders. Shift work sleep disorder is the most common type of sleep disorder shift workers experience.

Who Is Prone to Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder is most common in those who work 12 hour shifts that switch from day to night. Some of the professions that employ this practice include:

  • Hospital workers like nurses, physicians, and nurses assistants
  • Waiters, waitresses, and bar tenders
  • Truck drivers
  • Airline crews
  • Public transit operators, and;
  • Factory workers

Shift work disorders can present with difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and fatigue. Other studies link shift work to weight gain and a subsequent increased risk for developing diabetes. However, recent research reveals that shift work can have even more dire consequences, even affecting worker’s cardiovascular health.

Effects of Shift Work

A growing body of research shows that there is an association between shift work and blood pressure. Workers with a frequently rotating night shift experience a higher variance in blood pressure than the general popualtion. A study of the University of Michigan nursing staff found that women with a long history of night shift work and frequent shift rotation had an increased risk for developing cerebrovascular accident (stroke).

Other studies have found links between rotating shift workers and increase of ischemic heart disease and death. In other words, flipping your schedule from day to night can affect more than just your sleep – it can affect your heart.

What to Do About It

Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to assume that you can just give up shift work, especially if you’re working in a profession that requires 24-hour staffing (like a hospital). However, you can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke by restricting the amount of rotation. For example, ask your supervisor if you can remain on nights or days instead of switching back and forth. This simple step may go a long way toward reducing the risk of negative health outcomes related to inconsistent sleep.