The impacts of shift work on sleep
Disturbed sleep is the most commonly reported health side effect of shift work. One third of working adults struggle with ongoing, chronic sleep difficulties – and the proportion is even higher among shift workers.
Shift workers are the highest risk population for sleep problems given that they are operating against environmental clues that reset our internal biological clocks on a daily basis (e.g., light, meal times). As such, it is particularly important for shift workers to pay attention to strategies and tips that can help them improve their sleep. Sleep is a core physiological function and impacts so many important areas of our life: our energy, appetite, motivation, attention/concentration, how efficient we are at work, and even our mood – and the stakes are high if we leave chronic sleep issues unaddressed.
Can medications help?
Many people struggling with disrupted and irregular sleep choose to take sleeping medications as an ‘easy solution’. The class of prescription medications that assist with sleep can be very luring, yet are highly addictive, and people often quickly develop tolerance toward them (requiring higher amounts of the medication to achieve beneficial results). Many individuals will also experience rebound insomnia, where sleep problems after medication cessation become worse than they were prior to starting the medications. Importantly, most sleep aids should only be taken for short windows of time such as five to 10 days.
Improving sleep without medications
So, what are the best strategies to improve sleep without medication?
- Given the importance of light in impacting our sleep/wake cycle, it is important to decrease exposure to light when shifts are complete and it is time to sleep (e.g., wear sunglasses when heading home from work, have black-out blinds in your bedroom), and increase light when it is time to work and be alert (e.g., 15 to 20 minutes exposure to a lightbox can be of benefit).
- Develop a pre-bedtime ritual (e.g., read the paper, take a warm bath). Chose something to help unwind from the shift.
- Restrict the bedroom environment for sleeping only. Do not watch TV or read in bed.
- Schedule short naps (30 to 45 minutes maximum) before evening shifts to increase alertness. If possible, see if your workplace will allow you to build in scheduled naps (many employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of this).
- When it comes to shift work it may also be possible to have a discussion with your manager about the frequency of shift rotations. Having less frequent shift rotations (e.g., work a shift for two weeks rather than rotating to a different schedule every couple of days). This allows the body to gain some consistency in sleep patterns. And, if possible, see if shifts can be sequenced in a clockwise fashion (e.g., day – evening – night) as this facilitates a more normal sleep pattern.
Behavioural strategies do work, but the key is this: You need to implement these strategies for several weeks or longer to experience the beneficial results. So don’t give up, and good luck!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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