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Coping with Shift Work

Medically reviewed by Smita Patel, DO, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 19, 2023

Dolly Parton may have sung about working from 9 to 5, but many Americans don’t follow that work schedule. In fact, about 22 million Americans work through the night, early morning, or during split shifts, which can impact the body’s natural 24-hour cycle, which is called a circadian rhythm. This rhythm is largely guided by daylight and nighttime, and when a person goes against that rhythm, it can cause sleep-related issues.


Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep to get the rest their bodies need to recharge and to feel refreshed. Even if those hours are occurring during the middle of the day, it is important to establish routines that will lead to good sleep regardless of when during the day it occurs.


Shift Work = Sleep Disorder


Of the roughly 16% of American workers who do shift work, Shift Work Disorder impacts about 1 in 5 shift workers. The disorder is one that impacts circadian rhythms. It can cause insomnia when workers who work night, swing, or early-morning shifts attempt to go to bed or experience intense sleepiness while they are at work. 


Shift Work Disorder can lead to several negative outcomes that can severely negatively impact a person:


  • Mood Problems: The disorder can cause people to become impatient, irritable, and short-tempered. It may also impact a person’s ability to navigate conflict calmly or overcome an obstacle easily. Shift workers suffering from the disorder may start to isolate themselves from others socially and may fall into a depression.
  • Work Problems: Poor performance can result from the disorder as productivity is negatively impacted and task completion rates can suffer. Additionally, decreased alertness and awareness can lead to workplace or driving accidents.
  • Other Health Problems: When a person does not get consistent, good sleep, they may fall prey to other underlying health concerns because the body does not have the proper time to repair itself and become rejuvenated. Without this repair time, issues with the gastrointestinal tract, metabolism, reproduction, and cardiovascular system can arise.
  • Substance Abuse: People who struggle to stay awake at work or fall asleep when they need to can become addicted to stimulants or sedatives. People may also begin self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs to create new sleep patterns or adapt to a new work schedule.


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Sleep Tips - Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep Tips - Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Tips for people who do shift work


It is possible to overcome Shift Work Disorder. While people’s natural tendency is to be awake during daylight hours and asleep during nighttime hours, there are several tactics people can employ to adapt to a different work and sleep pattern. 




One of the biggest concerns with shift work is safety. Sleep deprivation or sleep interruption can cause issues while driving to and from work or while operating heavy machinery during a shift. Taking public transit to and from work or pulling over for a power nap if you feel drowsy is important. Carpooling or traveling with others also can help a person stay awake while commuting.


Stimulants and Sedatives

Caffeine, which is commonly found in coffee, sodas, teas, and energy drinks, can help to temporarily boost energy, but it is important to understand how a person’s body might react after the short-term boost ends. Also, consuming caffeine can negatively impact sleep if it’s consumed near bedtime.


Sleeping pills can be a short-term solution to adapt to a new sleep pattern, but many sleep aids can be habit-forming. It is important to talk with a doctor about any sleep aids before starting them.


Good Sleep Hygiene


Sleep hygiene is what medical professionals call the habits and activities that lead to a good sleep pattern. It includes having a proper sleeping environment and a regular sleep schedule. To ensure the sleep environment is conducive to good sleep, blocking out light with blackout curtains and sound with earplugs or other sound dampeners is important. Having a supportive mattress and good-quality bedding is also a good way to get sound sleep, as is sleeping in a cool yet comfortable room, usually set to about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. 


Next Video >>

Sleep Tips - Sleep Environment

Sleep Tips - Sleep Environment

While some shift work does not allow for a consistent sleep schedule, it is important to create a consistent bedtime routine that includes doing the same activities at night, such as putting on pajamas and brushing teeth. Also, it’s good to budget about 30 minutes of wind down time to calm down by engaging in activities such as stretching, light exercise, reading, or meditating.

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