Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)

Do you work the night shift or know someone who does?  Approximately 20% of the US workforce is engaged in some type of shift work. To clarify, shift work means having a work schedule outside of the typical “9 to 5” day. This can mean a 12-hour shift, a night shift, or something like 6am – 2pm.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) is a type of sleep disorder that usually occurs in people who work between 10pm – 6am. Because these kinds of schedule are outside of the norm, the sleep schedule is outside of the body’s circadian rhythm. People usually have great difficulty adjusting to this type of sleep schedule, especially if you are transitioning from regular working hours to the night shift.

best sleep schedule for night shift workers

Characteristics of SWSD include:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy/Fatigue

This disorder occurs because the individual cannot synchronize their internal clock with their work schedule (i.e. staying awake when it is dark outside and sleeping when it is light).  As a result, many people fall asleep on the job, have accidents during their shifts, become injured themselves or cause injury to others, or fall asleep during their commutes to/from work.

The 2005 International Classification of Sleep Disorders estimates that a shift work sleep disorder can be found in 2-5% of workers.

Consequences and health risks associated with SWSD:

  • Accidents/Injuries
  • Work-related mistakes
  • Increase in sick leave/time off
  • Decreased productivity
  • Mood disorders/irritability
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Gastrointestinal disorders

For people who are transitioning from a regular work schedule to a night schedule, physicians recommend getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per every 24-hour period. This would be the best sleep schedule for night shift workers.  It is also suggested that you start the sleep cycle directly after work has ended.  Additionally, you can take a 20-30 minute nap during your shift to maintain alertness.

shift work sleep disorder

Some preventative measures that can be taken to decrease the effects of SWSD would include things like maintaining a sleep journal to monitor your sleep schedules, avoiding long commutes, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and getting adequate sleep on your days off.  Sleep aides can be used, but proceed with caution as they can have their own list of side effects.

It would also be beneficial to try and limit the number of nights worked in a row.  You are more likely to recover from sleep deprivation with days off in between.  If you work 4 consecutive night shifts, then your body will need at least a 48-hour recovery period afterwards. Try to avoid overtime at all costs – you want to make sure that you still have time for regular activities of daily life and socialization.

Another extremely important aspect of shift work is to make sure you are getting enough light exposure.  Light exposure improves alertness and overall mood.

night shift sleep disorder

For individuals working indoors overnight, there are different types of light boxes (light therapy) that is recommended so that you still have exposure to “daylight”. This can help synchronize the body’s circadian rhythm.

The bottom line for those shift worker out there is to make sure that you get enough sleep!  If you think you may have a night shift sleep disorder, please contact our office for more information at (586) 573-0438.



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Wright K, Bogan, R, Wyatt J. Shift Work and the Assessment and Management of Shift Work Disorder (SWD). Sleep Med Rev. 2013 Feb; 17(1): 41-54.