What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

If you are someone who works irregular or rotating shifts, you have likely experienced some degree of sleep disruption associated with your work schedule. For an estimated 10% of shift workers, sleep disruptions are significant and impairing enough to classify as a sleep disorder.

Shift work sleep disorder, or SWSD for short, is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. It is characterized by a misalignment in sleep patterns, meaning that one’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm) does not match up to the outside world. When this happens, your body sends signals that conflict with the activities you are trying to do—for instance, sending alerting signals when you are trying to sleep, or sending sleepy signals when you need to be awake and productive.  

Individuals with SWSD experience insomnia—that is, difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or waking too early with an inability to fall back asleep—and/or excessive sleepiness during waking hours. Other features of SWSD include nonrestorative sleep, irritability and depression, low energy, concentration difficulties, and slow reaction times. Understandably, those with SWSD experience negative effects on their personal and professional lives. They are also at increased risk of health issues such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

If you are showing signs of SWSD, it is important that you speak with your family physician to discuss management options. These may include lifestyle and environmental changes, light therapy, pharmacological therapy, or a combination of methods. 

You may also consider meeting with your employer to discuss your schedule. SWSD is often very treatable when readjustment to a traditional work schedule is made. If this is not possible, you may be able to adjust your schedule so that you have more rest periods between workdays. If your insomnia persists despite a change to a traditional work schedule, we welcome you to reconnect with HALEO to learn about our insomnia program and whether it is an appropriate next step for you.

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