The rise of "shift work sleep disorder"

Millions of employees are at risk from a growing health epidemic, says this wellbeing expert.

by Brendan Street
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2019

Studies show the proportion of employees working night shifts recently increased by 7 per cent. There are now more than 3 million UK employees who work through the night and are at risk of the growing health epidemic, ‘Shift Work Sleep Disorder’.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) happens when employees work non-traditional hours - like split or rotating shifts and early mornings – which fall outside standard sleep patterns.

Between 10 to 40 percent of shift workers experience SWSD and those with regularly shifting schedules are most impacted.

Each of us has a natural sleep cycle, which is controlled by a bundle of nerves in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN).

The SCN works by adjusting melatonin levels to increase around 9pm, making you feel drowsy. Around 5am – after your deepest period of sleep – it begins boosting cortisol levels in the body, causing you to naturally awaken.

When individuals’ waking hours do not align with the SCN’s wake-sleep schedule, frustrating symptoms are triggered, which can lead to serious health concerns over time.

Some common symptoms include:

  • - Excessive sleepiness during shifts

  • - Lack of concentration and energy

  • - Depression or moodiness while at work

  • - Trouble maintaining positive relationships with colleagues

What is the long-term physical impact?

SWSD can lead to a weakened immune system, causing frequent infections and colds. Without enough sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that mediates infection and inflammation, effectively reducing the body’s immune response.

Long-term night-shift work is also associated with more serious health problems like increased risks of certain cancers, heart disease, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems.

Shift workers are more likely to have irregular eating habits and poor diet, which further increase metabolic problems.

What is the emotional toll?

The social and emotional effects of atypical shift working patterns are significant.

Those working irregular hours might feel "out of touch" with their family or friends. Research has even shown working nights and irregular hours contributes to an increasing number of divorces.

Those who sleep less may have higher levels of cortisol in their bodies, which, in turn, can exacerbate feelings of anger, anxiety and depression.

The impact on employee productivity

The effect of sleep deprivation on productivity and health is losing the UK up to 40 billion a year. Lack of sleep is even believed to be partly responsible for the Chernobyl disaster and the Exxon spill, so symptoms of SWSD should not be taken lightly.

A decline in productivity is usually because shift workers are less likely to sleep the full amount their bodies require, and this can accumulate into a large "sleep debt" over time.

If you work at night, you’re also acting against your biological clock, which is naturally nudging you to become less alert. Studies indicate slower reaction times; poor concentration and a rise in more costly mistakes and accidents.

Providing support

Businesses can alleviate some of the shift work strain by thinking practically about work schedules. Avoid scheduling too many night shifts in a row and frequently rotating shifts. If you are rotating, do so in a forward rotation (morning, evening, night).

Schedules should allow shift workers to complete tasks which require the most concentration at the time they are most alert. Often for night shift workers, the drowsiest time is between 3am – 5am.

Offer transportation to and from remote worksites to minimise any driving accidents which might occur before and after shifts.

Employees may not realise they’re having difficulties, so line managers should receive the right training to spot the signs and offer support when required. This creates an open dialogue around sleep concerns, a discussion about sleep is both welcomed and expected in the workplace and support plans can be created.

Run internal talks or invite health experts to discuss the impact of poor sleep and how to support those struggling. 

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like walking or swimming can enable employees to improve sleep quality and duration. Exercise seems to do this as it acts to reset the circadian rhythm, reduces stress, and triggers an increase in body temperature, with the post-exercise drop in temperature promoting falling asleep.

Finally, provide wellbeing support through external services like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). These offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals who feel their mental health is impacted by poor sleep.

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health.


Image credit: Professor25 via Getty Images

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