One of the reasons why shift work is so disruptive to sleep health is the fact that the human body is sensitive to changes in circadian rhythms, cues our bodies read from our surroundings that help our systems function. If you work at night, you must fight your body’s natural rhythms by staying awake when you would normally be sleepy and by trying to sleep when you would normally be awake.
Because of the body’s difficulty in adjusting to these irregular patterns, shift workers tend to be continually sleep-deprived. For instance, if you are a night shift worker who sleeps during the day, your average sleep cycle may be two to four hours shorter than that of a day worker who sleeps as night. And your sleep is less likely to make you feel well rested.
How can a sleep disorder affect my life?
Sleep loss can affect your life by lessening the quality of your job performance. Numerous lab and field studies show that sleepiness affects a person’s memory, mental ability, and motor skills. There are many examples among night workers of serious accidents caused, at least in part, by sleepiness. Two such examples include The Three Mile Island nuclear power accident and the Exxon Valdez grounding.
Are there treatments for sleep loss related to shift work?
Several treatments appear to help with shift workers’ problems sleeping, but different approaches depend on individual needs and circumstances. Here are some of the ways shift workers can work towards more restful sleep:
- Adjust Your Work Schedules
The best work schedule is one that allows you to sleep when you are off duty and be alert when you are on duty. Work schedules that go along with your body’s circadian rhythm are helpful. Studies have shown that changes in the work schedule that consider circadian factors are more likely to help workers be more productive and feel more satisfied – and to reduce accidents! Breaks during work hours may also increase your alertness, reduce your fatigue and increase productivity and job satisfaction.
- Regulate Your Sleep Schedule
Keeping a regular sleep schedule seven days a week will help your body adjust to a night shift. If you work rotating shifts, try to adjust your sleep schedule so that you will be able to adjust more easily to a new shift.
- Take a Nap
If you can’t get all of your sleep in one stretch napping may increase your total number of sleep hours. Naps can help reduce your sleep “debt” and improve your alertness. Napping is especially helpful when naps are taken off-shift, at an appropriate point in your circadian rhythm. When taking brief naps at work remember that small amounts of rest may only increase your alertness for the moment and may slow your job performance.
- Ask About Sleep Aides
If you think sleeping pills could help you once in a while, talk with your healthcare professional. Over-the-counter sleep aids are not the best choice to help you sleep since many of them cause drowsiness for several hours after you waken, which can be unsafe. Remember that there are disadvantages to using these medications, including side effects, and that sleeping pills may offer relief but they do not address the root cause of sleeping problems.
- Research Bright Light Therapy
Bright Light Therapy is a timed exposure to bright light that can help adjust your body to a new sleep schedule. Your healthcare professional can help determine the right amount of light exposure to help you adjust to your sleep schedules.
What if I still have trouble sleeping?
If you are a shift worker and you are having trouble sleeping, it may be time to get some assistance from a board-certified sleep specialist.
Source: “Coping with Shift Work,” a wellness booklet from American Academy of Sleep Medicine