Effects of Shift Work on Your Sleep

Effects of Shift Work on Your Sleep

If you work the night shift, early morning shift, or rotating shifts, you’re probably familiar with the after effects of those late nights and early mornings—difficulty falling or staying asleep, excessive sleepiness, fatigue, headaches, and trouble concentrating or remembering.

That tiredness and lack of focus can increase the risk of significant health and safety problems for shift workers, including:

  • Accidents
  • Making errors at work
  • Injuries
  • Heart disease
  • Insulin resistance, which increases the risk of diabetes
  • Depression
  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes
  • Ulcers

In some cases, people who work night or early morning shifts aren’t able to adapt to the way their schedule disrupts normal sleep patterns and develop a condition called shift work sleep disorder. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 10% to 40% of shift workers are living with this disorder.

Strategies to Help You Get the Sleep You Need

There are several steps you can take to help counteract the effects of shift work on your sleep:

Woman Checking Her Watch for the Time

Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule

As much as possible, go to bed and get up at the same time every day. By maintaining a regular schedule, you can help your body’s circadian rhythm, your biological clock, to adjust to sleeping days and being awake and at work at night. It’s also wise to try to get at least 8 hours of sleep a day.

Man Falling Asleep at Work

Try to Avoid Rotating Shifts

If possible, keep the same work schedule. When you switch back and forth between day and night shifts, any gains you’ve made in training your body to sleep during the day and be alert at night may be lost.

Coffee cup sitting on desk

Use Caffeine Carefully

While a caffeinated beverage at the start of your night shift can help boost your alertness, avoid caffeine later in the shift because it can make it harder to fall asleep when you return home after work.

Therapy light sitting on desk with books

Try a Light Therapy Box and Keep Your Workplace Well Lit

There are specially designed boxes that are used to treat people with seasonal affective disorder that mimic outdoor daylight. By using one of these light therapy boxes before you go to work at night, you can retrain your body to recognize your night shift as the start of your day. At work, make sure you have bright light in your workspace.

Hand on gas pump

Avoid Bright Light on the Way Home

Commuting home in the daylight, wear dark sunglasses to limit your exposure to daylight, which signals your body that it’s time to be awake. Don’t stop on the way home to do errands, because the combination of activity and daylight will make you feel more awake, which in turn will make it harder to fall asleep when you get home.

Woman in bed reaches for phone alarm on nightstand

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

When it’s time to sleep, do what you can to create the best conditions. Let family know not to disturb you, put your mobile devices on the do not disturb setting, use blackout curtains and a white noise machine or app in your bedroom, and avoid alcohol and nicotine in the hours before you go to bed.  If you develop ongoing sleep problems, keep a sleep diary so you can figure out if there are any triggers that make sleep more difficult. You should also talk with your primary care physician to find out if wake-promoting medications, prescription sleep aids or a supplement like melatonin are an option for you.

Video: The Importance of Good Sleep Hygiene


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E-mail worklife@hq.dhs.gov to talk with a Work/Life coordinator at DHS.

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