Shift work disorder: what is it and how can we better manage it?

Many professionals across a variety of industries feel the effects of an abnormal sleeping schedule due to their jobs.

From security guards and air traffic controllers, to nurses and other medical personnel, shift work – particularly at night – can take its toll on the human body. The cumulative effects are commonly referred to as shift work disorder or shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).

What is shift work?

Shift work is the term used for blocks of work where employees conduct the same work but in rotational periods.

Generally, the 24 hours in a day can be split into two or three shifts. These periods normally comprise the morning, evening, and night shift.

Advantages of shift work

Almost 15 million Americans work on evening, night, or other rotating shifts.

Working in shifts is a sought-after schedule for many workers who like flexible and adaptable hours. Some might like to avoid peak travel times or fewer working hours, while for others shift work is a financial necessity.

Rotational shifts are also beneficial to employers as specific employee skills are often not required. Employees across a number of shifts possess the same general skills meaning employers have greater flexibility when allocating staff to interchangeable morning, evening and night shifts.

In this blog post, however, we want to focus solely on night shifts.

Shift work disease: long- and short-term health effects of night shift work

Did you know shift workers are six times more likely to be involved in a fatigue-related road crash than other workers?

Shift work isn’t easy. Working against your circadian rhythm can have various short- and long-term effects on your health.

Even if you’re not a shift worker, you’ve probably experienced at least one of these short-term health effects after a couple of nights of poor sleep. Short-term effects associated with shift work may include:

  • •  Nausea
  • •  Anxiety
  • •  Poor diet
  • •  Irritability
  • •  Trouble concentrating
  • •  Short-term memory problems
  • •  Heartburn and digestive issues

Long-term effects of shift work have been linked to increased instances of various diseases including cardiovascular disease, insomnia and obesity. These shift work diseases affect stress levels, familial relationships and may even contribute to depression.

(You can view more short- and long-term symptoms of a poor night’s sleep in this infographic)

Additionally, it’s noted that while shift workers try to sleep during their normal waking hours (in preparation for a shift), they might be compromising the quality of sleep they’re receiving.

Sleep debt

Trying to function well after just one poor night’s sleep is difficult enough; any further affected sleep builds up as ‘sleep debt’. Sleep debt refers to the snowballing effect of not getting enough sleep over an extended period of time.

And can you guess the only way to repay your sleep debt? With sleep, of course.

How do companies manage shift work?

The key lies within research, flexibility and education. The following factors are examples of what companies need to research and establish strict guidelines and rules around shift work:

  • •  Optimum rosters
  • •  Working hour limits
  • •  Health assessments
  • •  Adequate breaks (during a shift)
  • •  Minimum daily rest periods (off work)

It’s hard for employees to regulate their own sleep and wake hours. Not only are they working through the night, where their bodies would naturally be sleeping (and where the circadian dips in preparation for sleep and restoration), they’re also trying to maintain a social life, take care of family, and achieve adequate sleep during the day.

It can be tremendously difficult to self-manage, which is why it’s crucial companies do their part to ensure their employees are safe not only at work, but also when they are travelling to and from work.

Optalert’s all-hour protection for shift workers

Job health and safety is not just about remaining vigilant at work. It’s about getting to and from work safely, too.

That’s where Optalert’s all-hour protection becomes crucial. It protects and monitors staff not only while they are at work, but in those crucial decision-making moments when they are driving to work and, perhaps most significantly, home from a shift.

While travelling to work, employees might be wrestling with drowsiness if they’ve experienced a poor rest period in preparation for night shift, while some research shows the risk of a drowsiness-related accident tends to peak towards the end of a night shift.

Knowing this, we must also acknowledge that this heightened risk mightn’t necessarily occur at work, but instead when an employee has finished their shift and is on his or her way home.

Optalert protects your assets to work, at work and home from work. Contact us to learn more.