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Shift Workers: Solutions for Sleep Problems

You stand at the bathroom sink, yawn, and splash cold water on your face. You glance at the clock—it is 10 pm. Instead of putting on pajamas and crawling beneath the covers, you are dressing for work. You fill a thermos full of coffee and stumble out the door. On the drive to work, you rub your eyes and roll down the window a bit to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. You have trouble concentrating on your work and you struggle to stay awake through the night. Finally, it is quitting time and you can go home to bed. Just when you are about to drift off, a neighbor cranks up a lawn mower, the birds seem to chirp louder than usual, and you cannot ignore the sunlight seeping in around the corners of the drawn shades.

The lifestyle of a shift worker can be tough. The lack of sleep can lead to many problems, including depression, lower job productivity, health problems, and marital and family discord. It can also lead to accidents, both on the job and on the highway. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) notes that shift workers are more likely to drive to or from work drowsy at least a few days a month than those who work a regular daytime schedule.

For millions of American shift workers the frustration of struggling to stay awake while they perform their jobs and then battling with insomnia and other sleep-related problems once they return home is too real. But if shift work creates so many problems, why not just stick with a daytime routine? Well, many people who make their living at odd hours provide crucial services, such as emergency care and police and fire protection. There is also a demand for round-the-clock workers in the transportation and manufacturing industries. Shift work is essential in our 24-hour society. Our bodies, however, are regulated by a different clock.

Internal Circadian Clock

Humans are regulated by an internal body clock that causes them to be active or sleepy based on different phases of each 24-hour day. For most people, the desire to sleep is greatest when it is dark outside, and the need to be alert and active is greatest when it is daylight.

When people don't follow this internal schedule, it can affect their health. Nearly 10% of shift workers are diagnosed with delayed sleep phase syndrome. It is a sleep disorder characterized by late bedtime and waking 2 hours later than normal or desired times on most days. It is also found in people who do swing (or rotating) shift work. Even though people working swing shifts occasionally work "normal" hours, their bodies do not have enough time to adjust to changing sleep schedule.

Strategies for Getting Some Shuteye

If you are working a shift and having trouble sleeping when you get home, here are some strategies for getting some much-needed rest:

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends.
  • Find a bedtime routine that makes you feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
  • Create a quiet, peaceful environment for sleeping.
  • Wear eye shades if the sunlight disturbs you.
  • Wear ear plugs if daytime noise keeps you awake.
  • Run a fan or create other white noise to help lull you to sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol near bedtime.

Some physical activity during your working hours may also help. Consider getting physical during your breaks by taking quick walks. If you still have problems, consult a doctor about the use of prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids.

A Short Snooze

When you cannot get enough sleep, you may find it beneficial to take a nap. A short nap can recharge a person and improve job performance, alertness, and mood. The National Sleep Foundation reports that naps at the workplace are important and effective for employees who need to keep a high level of alertness in order to make quick decisions. Naps at the workplace are also helpful for people working doubles or 24-hour shifts.

Some may continue to have trouble even with these changes. If you are experiencing severe symptoms related to sleep deprivation, it may be best to consider a job change, or at least a shift change.


National Center on Sleep Disorders Research

National Sleep Foundation


Better Sleep Council Canada

Health Canada


Delayed sleep phase syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated August 26, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2016.

Facts about drowsy driving. National Sleep Foundation Drowsy Driving website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2016.

Problem sleepiness. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed October 25, 2016.

Shift work and sleep. National Sleep Foundation website: Accessed October 25, 2016.

Your guide to healthy sleep. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Updated August 2011. Accessed October 25, 2016.

Last reviewed October 2016 by Michael Woods, MD