Shift-Work Sleep Disorder

Author:  FMN Contributing Author
Tired shift-worker

If you have worked shifts, or you know a shift-worker, you are probably aware of the fact that shift-workers have more sleep problems than day workers (39% vs 24.6%)[1]. But did you know that these sleep problems meet the clinical criteria of medically diagnosable sleep disorders more often for shift-workers than regular day workers?  Depending on the sleep disorder, estimates suggest between 6.8% and 16.8%[1] of shift-workers’ sleep problems are actual medically diagnosable sleep disorders compared to between 2.8% and 9.6%[1] for day workers.  While these numbers do not give us a value for the overall prevalence of sleep disorders in shift-workers compared to day workers, when you combine them with the fact that shift-workers have more sleep problems than day workers (39% vs 24.6%), it is pretty clear that shift-workers suffer from sleep disorders more often than day workers.  Moreover, shift-workers are more likely to suffer from 2 or more sleep disorders at the same time than day workers (18.8% vs 8.1%)[1].

One of the common disorders that shift-workers experience is Shift-Work Sleep Disorder.  Shift-workers with this disorder have a really hard time obtaining an adequate amount of good quality sleep during the day and they have a lot of trouble staying awake at work, particularly during night shifts.  While most shift-workers sleep less than day workers and have more difficulty staying alert at work, people with this disorder sleep 1 to 4 hours less than they would normally sleep when not working shifts even if their sleep environments are optimal and the sleepiness they experience at work increases their need to nap and decreases their alertness more so than for other shift-workers.  When shift-workers with Shift-Work Sleep Disorder have time off work, much of their free time is consumed by sleep as they recover from prior sleep loss. This often has a negative impact on their relationships with friends, family and romantic partners. Somewhere between 2% and 5% of shift-workers may have Shift-Work Sleep Disorder[2]. In some cases, the sleep and alertness of these shift-workers can be improved with medication, but in most cases, people with Shift-Work Sleep Disorder must discontinue shift-work and may only work duty patterns that allow for adequate night sleep.

Shift-workers with Shift-Work Sleep Disorder are at a greater risk of accidents due to the decreased alertness and take more days off work due to the discomfort and illnesses resulting from sleep loss compared to other shift-workers. To reduce these negative outcomes, a well-designed fatigue management program needs to help the workforce understand if their sleep problems need to be addressed.  A sleep problem screening tool like the one in the Fatigue Managers Network resource library can be used for this purpose. If you do use it, take it a step further and instead of just suggesting that people speak with their doctor about their sleep problems, consider recruiting a company like Rebel Sleep Institute or Haleo to help your workforce improve their sleep and remedy any sleep disorders.


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