Education, Physical Health, Wellness / Self-Care

What is Shift Work Disorder?

Learn about this sleep disorder and how to spot it.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Jan 10, 2022

The pandemic has caused many of us to find work in the most untraditional places or hours. Some people who might be working night, early morning, or rotating shifts for jobs to make ends meet, have to deal with lack of sleep or excessive sleepiness while at work.


This phenomenon, known as shift work disorder, results in the average shift worker losing one to four hours of sleep per night. But what exactly is the disorder and can it be treated? Below, we put together the guide on shift work disorder and how it affects your sleep.


What is shift work disorder?

Shift work, or working shifts between the hours of 6am and 7pm, includes fixed or rotating hours and is done by 16% of wage workers in the United States. Studies estimate that one in five have shift work disorder.


Categorized as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, shift work is a medical condition where the misalignment between the body and circadian rhythms regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Some other circadian rhythm sleep disorders include irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder and jet lag.


Guided by natural light and darkness, during the day your retinas perceive sunlight and signal to the brain to release cortisol to keep you feeling alert and energized. Equally, when the sun fades, your brain produces melatonin that will induce feelings of sleepiness and relaxation.


Put simply, shift work disorder is when your work schedule overlaps with a traditional sleep-wake cycle, one where you sleep at night and wake up in the sunlight.


How to spot it

Insomnia, excessive sleepiness while awake, and ongoing sleep loss are good indicators that you might have shift work disorder.


Doctors can diagnosis you with shift work disorder as soon as you report that your symptoms have lasted at minimum for one month.


So what happens if I have shift work disorder?

Well, shift work disorder can affect you versus your friend in many different ways. For example, if you have an evening shift, you might not have the same symptoms as a friend who has an early morning shift.


Daytime performance or night performance might still be impaired for the both of you, but one of you might adapt better working at night and sleeping in the day, and vice versa.


Other factors like marriage, family, and societal pressure can add to sleep loss from shift work disorder as well.


If you don’t seek treatment, you could start to experience mood swings, higher accident risk, health problems and poor work performance. Some might experience less symptoms as their body adjusts to the hours of the job.


However, if it continues to persist, you should definitely see a specialist. If left untreated, you could be diagnosed with chronic insomnia disorder.


Sleep is critical to health both physically and mentally, so make sure you have the optimal sleep environment.


Photo via Getty Images/iStock