Effect of Shift Work on SleepShift Work is defined as work that is outside the normal 9 -5 working day and involves a change in sleeping pattern. This usually means working through the night and sleeping during the day. This may be a permanent arrangement or might be a short term situation.

Researchers are increasingly interested in the effect sleep has on society. The relationship between accidents at work and on the road, loss of productivity and the health costs relating to loss of sleep are hard to prove.

A recent study into the effect of shift work looked at the different sleep patterns of marine workers. They studied the sleep differences of workers at home and on board. They concluded that 70 – 80% of marine accidents are the result of human error. Fatigue has been recognised as a contributor to major disasters such as the crash of the Exxon Valdez and Space Shuttle Valdez.

The relationship between sleep loss and accidents is hard to prove. The influence of alcohol is shown through testing and the signs of lack of coordination and other physical symptoms. Drowsiness is harder to prove. In the case of road traffic or other reported accidents, there are few ways to prove that lack of sleep has contributed in any way. Those involved in the accident will be unlikely to be in the same state and it is necessary to rely on their recall of how they felt prior to the accident. Workers may also be unaware or reluctant to admit that they are suffering sleep problems.

There are an increasing number of shift workers as we now live in a 24 hour society. Doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, police, pilots, commercial drivers and the catering, retail and manufacturing industries all rely on shift workers.

Health Problems

Shift workers are likely to suffer from sleep disturbances and drowsiness during the day. They are also more at risk of sleep apnea and developing cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders.

Sleep Disturbance

As well as feeling drowsy and finding it difficult to concentrate at work, shift workers often suffer from insomnia. The disruptive sleep patterns can affect family relationships and social life and cause moodiness and irritability.

Sensible Practice

Employers are encouraged to be aware and make allowances for the particular problems associated with shift work. Shift work is here to stay and industry and employers need to take steps to protect the safety and health of their workforce.

Sensible suggestions for those involved in Shift Work include:

  • Avoiding long journeys.
  • Working with others whenever possible.
  • Being aware that workers are at their ‘sleepiest’ between 4 – 5am.
  • Encouraging short naps during shifts.
  • Drinking coffee and caffeinated drinks.

Sleep Debt

By making a few adjustments many workers are able to adjust their sleep pattern to make up for the disruption. By avoiding caffeine, heavy meals and exercise before going to bed they will be helping their body prepare for sleep. Blinds, curtains and sleep masks all help turn day into night. Light boxes and spending as much time as possible in day light help keep the body in touch with normality.

Shift workers may find it difficult to fit in with the sleep patterns of the rest of the family. Parents may be tempted to miss out on sleep in an effort to fit in with their family and may find it difficult to ‘switch off’ in an active household. Adapting to weekends or other days off causes additional disturbance. Shift workers may also find it difficult to fit in regular exercise. Learning relaxation techniques and trying to develop a routine to wind down after a long shift will help encourage the mind and body to recognise the time to sleep.

Some part-time workers are also suffering from the effects of Shift Work.