How do you maintain a healthy relationship with sleep when your career involves a hectic, ever-changing schedule?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, we should all be aiming for between seven and eight hours of sleep per night. However, for a lot of us, our careers make this impossible. This is particularly true for shift workers.
Millions of people in the UK are shift-workers, from doctors and nurses to pilots, police officers, customer service workers, sportspeople and commercial drivers . . . to name but a few. And research is increasingly showing a link between these types of roles and poor sleep.
For example, one 2017 study by Jehan et al, published in Sleep Medicine and Disorders: International Journal, found that sleep disturbance is a major issue among shift workers. Results showed that shift workers are more at risk of weight gain due to lack of sleep, and are also more prone to occupational injuries. In roles such as nursing, sleep disturbance caused by shift patterns was found to compromise both physical and mental health.
What is shift work sleep disorder?
Poor quality sleep can be detrimental to your overall health, and sleeplessness caused by shift work is often referred to as shift work sleep disorder.
This condition is more common than you might think. Medical practitioner and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Dennis Nicholson, estimates that between 5 and 10% of the individuals he treats are suffering with shift work sleep disorder.
For many people, poor quality sleep seems like an unavoidable aspect of life, but shift work sleep disorder can have potentially dangerous consequences. One study by Akerstedt and Wright, published in 2009 in Sleep Medicine Clinics, looked at the effect of shift work and sleeplessness on workers operating heavy machinery. Their results showed that energy, performance and safety levels were all negatively impacted by the persistence of irregular shift patterns.
Data from the National Sleep Foundation reveals that shift workers are more likely to suffer from both insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. They are also more likely to drive while tired and twice as likely to fall asleep at the wheel.
The symptoms of sleeplessness due to shift work
Suffering from shift work sleep disorder often means you aren’t performing your role to the best of your ability. A recent study, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, looked at the relationship between healthcare professionals and sleeplessness. The results showed that a quarter (25.6%) of participants were suffering from shift work sleep disorder, and that this was indeed having an impact on their ability to complete their roles.
Unsurprisingly, excessive tiredness is the most common complaint associated with shift work sleep disorder. Other symptoms of the condition include:
- Reduced workplace performance
- Disrupted sleep schedules
- Increased feelings of anxiety or depression
- Tension within personal and professional relationships
If you’re struggling to get through the working day, feeling excessively tired while at work and feeling quick to anger, there’s a good chance you may be sleep deprived due to your shift patterns.
Improving your sleep habits in spite of tricky shifts
The key to avoiding sleep deprivation as a shift worker is to try and keep your sleep-wake routine as regular as possible – taking care to manage meal times, light exposure and device usage. This can be challenging when your shifts are constantly changing, but establishing a clear bedtime routine is paramount.
Create a set routine for what you do in the lead-up to going to bed. Try to avoid bright screens for at least an hour before bed, as well as caffeine, and instead engage in some reading or meditation as a way to unwind. Keep your sleep space cool and dark, turning your bedroom into an area that’s ideal for a good night’s sleep.