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sleep / lifestyle

Shift Work: How to Adapt for Better Sleep

by BetterSleep
Apr 27 • 3 min read

Over 22 million American adults work non-traditional hours, including shift work. If you work outside the typical 9:00 am to 5:00 pm schedule, your job may make it feel impossible to maintain an ordinary sleep schedule. Shift work may cause many issues, and sleep is often predominantly affected. It can even cause a condition known as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). Learn how your work schedule impacts sleep and what you can do about it.

What Sleep Issues Are Caused by Shift Work?

The body’s internal clock produces what we call circadian rhythms in the brain that are matched to a 24-hour cycle. As you go through your daily cycle, you experience changes in alertness, sleepiness, body temperature, hunger, and hormone levels.

Your level of exposure to sunlight plays a significant role in regulating your internal clock. Changes in sunlight are what make most people sleepy at night and alert during the day, with a bit of drowsiness in the afternoon. Unfortunately, if you work at night and sleep during the day, your body is constantly fighting its natural cycle.

Shift workers are generally sleep-deprived as a result. Workers with longer shifts, such as 12 hours, tend to have even more sleep difficulties. Some of the consequences of poor sleep due to shift work may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Sleeping lightly and waking up often
  • Not feeling rested
  • Decreased alertness when awake
  • Increased risk of accidents

If your symptoms are severe enough, you may be diagnosed with SWSD. The most common symptoms of shift work sleep disorder are excessive sleepiness when awake and difficulty sleeping during your “night”. Potential complications include poor functioning, depression, anxiety, poor physical health, and an overall lower quality of life.

How to Get Better Sleep as a Shift Worker

You may not be able to avoid shift work, but you can take steps to improve the duration and quality of your sleep. Creating a sleep routine can be an effective strategy for optimal results. Stick with a regular bedtime and wake up schedule every day if possible.

If you have a rotating shift schedule, on the other hand, this strategy isn’t possible. Try gradually shifting your sleeping and waking times over a few days as you move from one schedule to another. Here are some other ways to get more sleep:

  • Get blackout curtains for your bedroom to simulate nighttime.
  • If you live with others, ask them to keep the house quiet during your sleeping hours.
  • Try melatonin, a natural sleep supplement that is generally safe and may help you fall asleep more easily. Consult your doctor before trying it.
  • Take a short nap during your “day” to restore your energy.
  • Avoid naps within a few hours of bedtime. You want to make sure you are as sleepy as possible when it’s finally time to hit the hay.
  • Try to fit daily exercise into your routine. It’ll help relax the mind and body, making you sleepy when it’s time for bed.
  • Practice relaxation strategies to reduce stress and anxiety. Meditations on BetterSleep, for instance, can prepare you for sleep at any time of day.

As a shift worker, you have challenges other people don’t face. It’s worthwhile for your health and well-being to focus on getting more and better-quality sleep. If you continue to struggle with sleep and it is affecting your functioning, talk to your doctor for help and potential medical intervention.

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