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Everything You Need to Know About Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)


Healthcare worker in blue scrubs and wearing blue latex gloves and goggles sits as she struggles with sleep disorder

While we’ve always been thankful for our healthcare workers and first responder heroes, this year has brought them even more to the focus. They work hard! Not only this, many nurses, doctors, EMTs, firefighters, and others on the front lines do so during non-traditional work hours. After all, car accidents occur at night and people need medical care at 10 pm. Of course, millions of these heroes have been working long hours overnight to fight the Coronavirus Pandemic. We’re so thankful for what they do, and part of this means realizing the sacrifices they make for the benefit of all of us. We've written about the best sleep schedule for night shift workers, these night shifts can lead to a troubling condition called Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)? Also, known as “shift worker syndrome,” this is something to be taken very seriously. 

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)?

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) occurs in individuals who work nontraditional hours. This includes the third shift, graveyard shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts. SWSD is characterized by excessive sleepiness, a lack of refreshing sleep, and drowsiness. These symptoms can affect both work and leisure time. 

There’s a reason all cultures across the world sleep at night and work during the day, even cultures who have little else in common. Your body is tired at night when it’s dark and awake during the day when the sun makes it light. This is thanks to your circadian rhythm. It regulates wakefulness and sleepiness at relatively set times throughout the 24-hour day. A nontraditional work schedule can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, or “biological clock.” Essentially, you are fighting what your body naturally wants to do, which is to go to sleep when it’s dark out. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that between 10 to 40 percent of shift workers experience SWSD. 

The Health Effects from SWSD Symptoms

This isn’t just being tired. We’re all tired at the end of the workday! SWSD is a lot more. SWSD is a chronic condition that lasts a long time. The symptoms often impact the person’s everyday life. Those who suffer from SWDS experience many of the following symptoms:

  1. Excessive sleepiness
  2. Difficulty concentrating
  3. Lack of energy
  4. Insomnia that prevents you from getting adequate sleep
  5. Sleep that feels incomplete or not refreshing
  6. Depression or moodiness

Chronic sleep deprivation can wreck your life and cause trouble with relationships. It can be dangerous, as it increases your risk for falling asleep at the wheel, injuries related to falling, and even making errors on the job. A lack of sleep can impact your health, including heart health, brain health, and proper digestive function. It can also increase your risk of serious mental health conditions, like Depression. Poor coping skills and impaired social functioning can lead to drug and alcohol dependency. What you need to do is learn how to sleep for the night shift in a way that is healthy and realistic. 

How to Adjust from Morning to Night Shift

As serious as SWSD is, someone has to work these night shifts. While you can’t change your work hours, there are ways to lessen the effects of SWSD. If you’re on-call for these, it’s worth it to prepare and learn how to adjust to night shift. Take naps when possible. A 30- to 60-minute nap right before your shift can make it a lot easier to make it through the night. Making lifestyle changes, ensuring your bed is both comfortable and supportive, and creating a slumber oasis can help you get the best quality of sleep during your time off.

Sleep Tips for Working Night Shift

Tips for working night shift include:

  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule, including on days off. The back and forth of sleeping at night and then sleeping during the day is what makes it nearly impossible for your circadian rhythm to adjust.
  2. If possible, take 48 hours off after a series of shifts. This will give your body enough time to catch up on the rest your body so badly needs.
  3. It may be shocking to find you can't sleep after working a night shift. Wear sunglasses when leaving work to minimize sun exposure. Doing so can help prevent the “daytime” clock from activating.
  4. Avoid a long commute if you can. It can cut into your sleeping hours and cause further drowsiness. Plus, if you are sleep deprived you are running the very real risk of being in a car accident on your way home from work.
  5. Your diet matters a lot! Some studies have linked shift work disorder with unhealthy eating habits. Maintain a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. You will also want to limit caffeine intake and heavy meals four hours before when you need to fall asleep.
  6. Once you are home, you’ll want your bedroom to be a slumber oasis, complete with a high-quality mattress and anything else you need to be comfortable, like pillows, a down comforter, or fresh sheets. Keep the room cool and dark, even during the day. Use heavy, blackout shades to create a dark environment.
  7. You’re going to need a bit of cooperation from your loved ones. Ask family or roommates to reduce noise by using headphones to watch television or listen to music. Ask them to avoid loud household chores until you’re awake. Wear earplugs or use white noise to drown out sound while you sleep.
  8. Keep so-called “nightly” rituals before bed, even during the daytime. This could be reading a book, taking a bath, and other calming activities. You want to slowly ease your body and brain into sleep.

About 20% of the full-time workforce in the US is involved in some form of shift work. Knowing how to get your sleep schedule back on track will go a long way toward avoiding the negative side effects of SWSD. If you think your old, lumpy mattress may be one of the problems, City Mattress is here to help. Come into one of our retail locations to find the perfect new mattress for you. If you want to shop overnight while on a break from work, that’s okay too because you can order sleep essentials directly from our website.