What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

Published on: February 13, 2022 | Reading time: 🕐 2m

Picture of someone sitting on her bed

If you’re a shift worker, odds are you’ve struggled with sleep disruptions. About 50% of shift workers experience chronic insomnia—a sleep disorder characterized by persistent difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep—compared to 10-15% in the general population. For about 10% of shift workers, sleep disruptions are severe enough to be classified as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).1 

What is shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder, or SWSD for shortSWSD is a circadian rhythm disorder characterized by recurring sleep disturbances. Those with SWSD often struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get restorative sleep. This condition mainly affects those who work non-traditional hours like nights or rotating shifts. 

Disruption of the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is a hallmark feature of SWSD. The body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is synchronized with environmental cues like sunlight, but shift work can disrupt this synchronization, leading to sleep disturbances and excessive sleepiness during waking hours. 

Other symptoms of SWSD include irritability and depression, low energy, concentration issues, and slower reaction times, impacting both personal and professional lives. Additionally, SWSD increases the risk of health problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.1 


What causes shift work sleep disorder?

SWSD stems from a combination of factors. The main trigger is disruption of the body’s internal clock due to irregular work hours. Environmental factors such as noise and light exposure, along with lifestyle habits like irregular mealtimes and excessive caffeine, further exacerbate the problem.  

Psychologically, shift work makes it challenging to balance work and personal life. This can lead to social isolation, relationship strains, increased stress, and mental health concerns, all of which can further contribute to the development or worsening of SWSD. 


What treatment options are available to me?

Managing SWSD involves several strategies to enhance sleep quality and overall well-being:2 

  • Sleep hygiene practices. Establishing consistent sleep schedules when possible, creating a sleep-conducive environment, and avoiding stimulating activities before bedtime can help improve sleep quality.
  • Light exposure. Exposing oneself to bright lights at specific times of the day, and avoiding light at other times, can help regulate the body’s internal clock. 
  • Lifestyle modifications. Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, engaging in regular physical activity, and adopting stress-reduction techniques can contribute to better sleep for shift workers. 
  • Well-timed naps. Incorporating naps into the schedule can help mitigate some of the effects of sleep deprivation by providing a boost in alertness, concentration, and mood.
  • Medications. In some cases, medications such as melatonin or wake-promoting agents may be prescribed to help regulate sleep-wake cycles and improve sleep quality.  

At HALEO, we specialize in supporting shift workers with personalized programs to improve sleep and quality of life. Connect with us today for support tailored to your needs. 

Recommend HALEO to your employer or take our screening test to join our virtual clinic and learn more about your sleep 


Written by Cherie La Rocque, PhD, RPsych



  1. Drake, C. L., Roehrs, T., Richardson, G., Walsh, J. K., & Roth, T. (2004). Shift work sleep disoreder: prevalence and consequences beyond that of symptomatic day workers. Sleep, 27(8), 1453-1462. Retrieved from: Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Prevalence and Consequences Beyond that of Symptomatic Day Workers | SLEEP | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
  2. Sack, R. L., Auckley, D., Auger, R. R., Carskadon, M. A., Wright, K. P., Vitiello, M. V., & Zhdanova, I. V. (2007). Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: part 1, basic principles, shift work and jet lag disorders. Sleep, 30(11), 1460-1483. Retrieved from: Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders: Part I, Basic Principles, Shift Work and Jet Lag Disorders | SLEEP | Oxford Academic (oup.com) 
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