Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)

20% of employees in the UK follow shift work schedules. Of these workers, current estimates suggest 1:5 has experienced shift work sleep disorder.
  • Author: Siva
  • Last updated: August 8, 2022
  • 5 Minutes
shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) for rota workers explained by Papershift

Shift work sleep disorder is a condition that primarily affects people who work night, early morning, and rotating shifts for their jobs. The disorder may cause insomnia when workers attempt to sleep and/or excessive sleepiness while they are at work. The average person with shift work disorder loses one to four hours of sleep per night.

But what exactly is shift work sleep disorder and how can staff and their employers combat it?

Read on to find out.

What is shift work?

Shift work is loosely defined as any shift that falls outside the hours of 6 am and 7 pm, including fixed and rotating hours. Roughly 20% of employees in the UK follow shift work schedules. Of these workers, current estimates suggest one in five has experienced shift work sleep disorder.

What is shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work disorder is categorized as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. This class of medical conditions is characterized by a misalignment between the body and the circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep-wake cycle. 

Circadian rhythms are largely guided by natural light and darkness. During the day, the retinas in your eyes perceive sunlight and signal the brain to release hormones like cortisol that keep you feeling alert and energized. As the sun sets and light fades, your brain produces another hormone, melatonin, which induces feelings of sleepiness and relaxation.

Shift work disorder specifically relates to circadian misalignment related to a work schedule that overlaps with a traditional sleep-wake cycle. Insomnia, excessive sleepiness while awake, and recurring sleep loss are the defining symptoms of shift work sleep disorder

How does shift work sleep disorder affect employees?

Shift work disorder affects people in different ways. For example, someone who works an evening shift may not experience the same symptoms as another worker with an early morning shift. The degree to which daytime performance is impaired also varies by patient.

In general, however, most sufferers experience the following symptoms: 

Excessive tiredness

Most employees who experience shift work sleep disorder will feel excessively tired due to the disruption of their circadian rhythm.

Insomnia

For some employees, the disruption to the circadian rhythm will cause insomnia, that is, an inability to sleep when they should.

Mood problems

Shift work disorder can cause people to feel impatient, irritable, and unable to cope with problems or conflicts. Many avoid interacting with their co-workers while on the clock and may also feel less inclined to socially engage with friends and family members when not at work. People with shift work disorder are at higher risk of depression compared to those who do not have the disorder.

Poor work performance

People with shift work disorder often struggle to concentrate, pay attention, and remember things. This can translate to reduced performance at work and added costs for employers.

Higher accident risk

Since shift work disorder decreases alertness and reaction time, it puts workers at higher risk of committing errors or being involved in an accident. 

Added health problems

A good night’s sleep is needed to restore the body and maintain good immune health. Shift work sleep disorder and subsequent sleep loss can worsen underlying health problems, including gastrointestinal, metabolic, reproductive, and cardiovascular issues.

Low testosterone

In some people, shift work can affect their testosterone levels which can present as fatigue, low energy, and low libido.

How can shift work sleep disorder be prevented?

There are a variety of things that both employers and employees can do to prevent shift work sleep disorder. These include:

Avoid consecutive shifts longer than 12 hours

After night shifts, it is recommended that employees have at least 48 hours off so that their body can recover. When an employee does have a day or two off from work, it is good idea for them to catch up on rest 

Avoid working an extensive amount of overtime

Overtime may sound tempting but when it is combined with late, evening, or night shifts it can lead to fatigue and serious disruption of the circadian rhythm.

Establish a regular sleep schedule

It’s important that employees establish a regular sleep schedule. This will help reinforce their body’s sleep-wake cycle.

When sleeping create an effective environment for restorative sleep

This is a tip for those working shifts. When sleeping, it’s important to keep your room at a cool temperature. This can help aid the process of cooling your body. Keeping your bedroom dark and quiet can also help promote sleepiness.

Avoid food (and other things) before bed

Avoiding large meals, spicy foods, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and other substances that interfere with sleep at least 4 hours before bedtime is a good way of ensuring sleep.

It can also help to try to limit the amount of caffeine drunk during the day.

Reduce screen time

This is a tip for both employers and their employees. Light, noise, and content from televisions, smartphones, and tablets are stimulating and can cause difficulty sleeping.

If you are an employee, stop using electronic devices at least an hour before bed and if you are an employer, think about limiting worker’s access to electronic devices near the end of their shift.

Reduce physical activity before bed/end of shift

Physical activity before bedtime can cause difficulty falling asleep. As an employer you can help staff to wind down if their job is physical by reducing the number of strenuous activities undertaken in the final hour of a shift.

Avoid stressful and stimulating activities close to bedtime/end of shift

Physically and psychologically stressful activities can cause the body to secrete the stress hormone, cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. Reducing stress and unwinding from the day can help you fall asleep faster and achieve a better quality of sleep. 

Employers can help staff by giving them time away from stressful tasks in the last hour before their shift ends.

In conclusion

Shift work sleep disorder can be a serious problem for many workers and seriously reduce their productivity at work. But with a little thought, many of its issues can be prevented or stopped before they become serious.

Thank you for reading this guide. For more workplace information, check out the rest of our website.

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Written by Siva

I write & describe the value & benefits delivered by Paperhift's rota planning, staff time tracking, and employee payroll management software. Especially useful for Shift Planners, Rota Managers, Team Admins, and HR Teams :-)