Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi holds an academic position at Northumbria University. After completing her Ph.D. at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), she joined the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow to research how sleep and circadian rhythmicity influence our cognitive functioning.

Read more
Last Updated On October 9th, 2023
Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Key Takeaways

  • Impact on Daily Life: SWSD is a sleep disorder that primarily affects people working irregular hours, such as night shifts or rotating schedules. It disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, leading to symptoms like disturbed sleep, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, depression, and anxiety. It can significantly impact daily activities and overall quality of life.
  • Prevalence: SWSD affects a significant portion of the workforce, with approximately 25% of workers having irregular or on-call shifts. While some individuals have more flexibility in choosing their schedules, many essential workers, including healthcare professionals, firefighters, and pilots, must cope with the challenges of SWSD.
  • Management Strategies: Managing SWSD involves maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding excessive caffeine intake, maintaining a healthy diet, minimizing disturbances during sleep, taking short naps, and considering the use of supplements or medications if necessary. Additionally, light exposure management, both during and after work, can help align circadian rhythms with work schedules.

What is shift work sleep disorder? Shift work sleep disorder or SWSD is a sleep issue that primarily affects people who work abnormal hours outside of the body’s internal clock, such as graveyard (night shift), early morning shifts, rotating shift workers, or other abnormal hour schedules. Such irregular work shifts upset the body’s circadian rhythm, disrupting proper sleep. Shift work sleep disorder can cause many problems with your daily activities.

Shift work sleep disorder can be devastating to your life and activities. It can be difficult to adjust to a different work schedule, and many never fully adjust. How well a person adjusts depends on how long their abnormal schedule lasts and how swift the schedule changes are.

Save $450 On Any Mattress

Plus free shipping

Get $450 OFF Mattresses

“As a result, people with SWSD will have trouble sleeping, staying alert when awake, and suffer from depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and overall life management issues,” notes Dr. Nayantara Santhi.

Almost 25% of the workforce is assigned abnormal and on-call shifts for work, and this number is still likely low compared to the reality of workers with SWSD. Since the pandemic, more people are working from home and able to choose their own schedules, with many choosing to work late nights or early mornings so as to not disrupt family members.

However, many people still have to show up at a workplace and work odd hours, from people employed in stores promising 24/7 convenience for shoppers to sleep-deprived nurses and other medical professionals, firefighters, pilots, and commercial drivers.

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift work sleep disorder is Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source a long-term condition that can have devastating effects on a person’s life. There are many signs of Shift Work Sleep Disorder or SWSD, Verified Source ScienceDirect One of the largest hubs for research studies and has published over 12 million different trusted resources. View source including:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Nodding off while active
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Oversleeping after several days of little sleep
  • Waking up exhausted
  • Having trouble staying awake at work
  • Irritability
  • Losing track of time and even days

SWSD can potentially even be dangerous and even life-threatening if you operate heavy machinery or fall asleep at the wheel. SWSD can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, weight gain, muscle weakness and spasms, and memory problems.

Shift work sleep disorder can also lead to increased risk for cancer. Verified Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The United States’ health protection agency that defends against dangers to health and safety. View source  Researchers at the University of Missouri discovered that people with SWSD are up to 300 percent more likely to be in a car accident.

Differences Between Insomnia and Shift Work Sleep Disorder

The two primary symptoms of SWSD are insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. Here is some more information on each:

  • Insomnia: Insomnia is when you have “persistent difficulty” with falling and staying asleep. When a person has insomnia, they will often have plenty of time allotted for sleeping but have trouble getting proper sleep in that time. Someone with insomnia can have various sleep problems, including falling asleep, staying asleep, or even reaching deep sleep during their sleep time. Insomnia can significantly diminish performance and cognition.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness: SWSD can cause a reduction in alertness while at work or carrying out daily activities, especially during the day.

Some impairments from insomnia and excessive sleepiness can include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, irritability, heightened aggression and anxiety, and frequent mistakes while working, which can even cause accidents while operating heavy equipment.

People who suffer from insomnia do not necessarily suffer from shift work sleep disorder. This is because insomnia can result from many different health conditions. However, studies show that insomnia Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source is a common occurrence in those with SWSD.

“Why does shift work cause a problem with sleep and alertness?” asks Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “This has to do with the interaction between our circadian system and sleep drive.”

“Normally, we are awake during the day, a time when the increasing circadian arousal signal counteracts the increase in sleep pressure. In contrast, being awake at an abnormal time such as the night is disruptive because this is a time when the circadian propensity for sleep increases and that of alertness declines.”

How Does Shift Work Disorder Impact Everyday Life?

Shift work sleep disorder can lead to many other dangerous behaviors, further complicating an already demanding lifestyle. Such behaviors that can make sleep and daily health worse include:

  • Use caffeine to excess: People with SWSD tend to drink more caffeine on the job, making it more difficult to fall asleep at home.
  • Lack of a healthy diet: Tired people will cook healthy food less, opting for fast food and junk food, leading to poor nutrition and obesity, making their situation worse.
  • Poor decision-making: With a lack of sleep, people tend to be more impulsive, making more dangerous decisions without thinking them through. The stress from lack of sleep can also lead to violent reactions to minor situations.
  • Medical conditions: SWSD can lead to obesity, less exercise, high blood pressure, and many other disorders.

In addition, lack of sleep can create dangerous work conditions. Lack of sleep is linked to 274000 workplace accidents per year, according to a 2012 study.

How Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder Diagnosed?

If someone thinks they may have shift work sleep disorder, it is best to speak to a doctor or sleep specialist. Most professionals will ask about medical history. They may ask you to complete a sleep diary. It may even be necessary to participate in a sleep study in a sleep lab during the day or during off-work hours.

However, one problem with diagnosing shift work sleep disorder is that many other conditions behave similarly to SWSD, including insomnia, sleep apnea, or medication side effects.

Managing Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Most shift workers have little choice in their work hours. Unless they want to make a drastic change of careers, they need to be creative with finding ways to overcome SWSD and reducing fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Here are some things you can do to help fight shift work sleep disorder:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule, even on days off
  • Stop drinking caffeine four hours before bedtime.
  • Eat healthily! Maintain a diet with wholesome meats, fruits, and vegetables
  • Install blackout shades in the room you sleep in to limit light exposure during daylight hours
  • Wear blue blocker sunglasses on your way home to limit sunlight exposure
  • Try to have two days off in a row to lower stress per week
  • Take naps whenever possible, even if just for a short time
  • Avoid bright digital devices when you get off of work
  • Wear earplugs when sleeping to avoid outside noise
  • Maintain good sleep hygiene by creating an evening routine and sticking to it, even on days off
  • Add a dietary supplement such as melatonin to take before bed
  • Use a lightbox to expose yourself to safe, bright light before work. The effect of light helps improve alertness
  • Talk to your employer about how they can help improve your sleep hygiene to help maintain a safe workplace
  • Wear an eye mask to block out bright light when sleeping

Light Altering

Light is one of the strongest time signals for the body clock. So making changes to your daily light exposure can help stabilize circadian rhythms including sleep. Increased levels of melatonin in the evening is a signal for the brain to prepare for sleep.

But evening light at home suppresses melatonin, so having low levels of light and avoiding electronic devices before bedtime can facilitate sleep. Equally, light has an alerting effect, so having bright light can help you stay awake when you need to, for example during night shifts.

A light therapy box or extra bright bulbs and even a lot of sunlight before work during later shifts can make you feel more awake if you have more trouble staying awake than night owls. If you work alternating shifts, you can use bright light therapy to help shift your circadian rhythm to one that better fits your new schedule, helping you wake up and fall asleep more by your work shift.

Alternatively, if you need to sleep after an early morning shift that ends in the middle of the day, wear dark blue blocker sunglasses when you get off of work to minimize melatonin-inhibiting rays. Light can even affect your sleep cycle while you sleep, so try to make the area you sleep as dark as possible, blocking out windows, turning off lights, or even wearing a sleep mask or towel over your eyes when you sleep. Personally, I used to simply lay a sock over my eyes, which is not perfect, but it helps!

Studies show the most effective light management Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source combines light therapy with light avoidance for the best results.

Sleep Improvement Supplements

  • Melatonin: One of the best sleep-promoting hormones to take, as melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone. When working abnormal shifts for work, melatonin supplements help prep the body for sleep. While melatonin is beneficial for helping you fall asleep at night, it may not necessarily help you stay awake during work.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a vital mineral to the human body with hundreds of benefits. Primarily, magnesium is known to have a relaxing effect and helps the body produce melatonin. One study showed that magnesium Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  in combination with vitamin B and melatonin treated a variety of causes of insomnia.
  • Lavender: Lavender is a wonderful scent used worldwide as an odor blocker and mood enhancer. Several studies have shown Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source that smelling lavender before bed can improve sleep quality, particularly in those who suffer insomnia or other sleep disorder.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile is an herb often brewed into a tea known for its calming effects. Chamomile tea has often been recommended as an aid in falling asleep. You can also try to enjoy the scent of chamomile with essential oils or a plant for the bedroom.

Sleep Medicine

Medication can be used to help with more extreme insomnia or other sleep disorders. While medication is typically not ideal, in extreme situations, it may be necessary. Be sure to consult with a doctor before beginning any sleep medication or altering the dosage of sleeping pills.

  • Lunesta: Lunesta, or eszopiclone, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Lunesta is known as a sedative-hypnotic. These drugs produce a calming effect and are generally not recommended for daily, long-term use.
  • Ambien: Ambien is another sedative-hypnotic. Ambien releases quickly to help you fall asleep fast. However, one known side effect is if woken up, many people report being awake but in a walking-sleep state, causing abnormal behavior until they return to sleep, sometimes with no recollection of what happened in the morning.
  • Zolpidem: Zolpidem is another sedative-hypnotic used to slow brain activity before bed, allowing people to fall asleep more easily.

Wakefulness Medication

Currently, the FDA approves of two wakefulness medications for shift work sleep disorder:

  • Modafinil: Modafinil is Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source considered a quality wakefulness medication with little known side effects known to many stimulants. Also prescribed for narcolepsy, Modafinil is also known to increase alertness while working.
  • Armodafinil: A similar medication, also prescribed to people with sleep apnea to aid in daytime alertness, Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source Armodafinil is a common prescription for people with abnormal work schedules.

Lifestyle Changes

Severe shift work sleep disorder should be diagnosed and managed by a professional. Still, whether your case is severe or minor, lifestyle changes can greatly help you manage.

Stay Active

Regular exercise can help sleep and is one of the best things you can do for your body and overall quality of life. However, if you work a highly physical job already, adding exercise can tax your body too much leading to even more fatigue during work hours.

Healthy Diet

Avoid high-sugar and highly processed foods. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables other superfoods for sleep and avoid overeating before going to sleep.

Minimize Disturbances

Sleeping during the day when everyone else is awake can be difficult. Try to encourage the household to limit noisy activities when you are sleeping, sleep in a room furthest from where the most activity is, disconnect your doorbell and do anything else to limit outside disturbances. See our guide on blocking noise out of the bedroom.

Catch up on Sleep

While there is little you can do to ‘catch up on sleep’, resting until you feel rested on your days off can improve your quality of life during the week. Do not feel guilty about ‘oversleeping‘.

Establish a Routine

Proper sleep hygiene includes setting up a bedtime routine. Go to bed at the same time every night, avoid bright lights and screens, have a cup of chamomile tea, and read a book or similar routine before going to sleep.

Take Naps

Naps can help make a tough schedule manageable. Many workplaces offer places for shift workers to sleep at work.

Taking a brief nap before work or a power nap during a break can help make it through a tiring work shift. Limit the nap to 15-20 minutes to avoid falling into a deep sleep.


While it is not recommended to drink too much caffeine, a cup or two of coffee or tea at the beginning or middle of your shift can help make it through work. Try to avoid caffeine on the second half of your shift or at least 4-6 hours before going to sleep to avoid restlessness. Instead, look to drink water or a tea for sleep.

Minimize Alternating Schedules

Talk to your supervisor to see if changes can be made to limit the stress of alternating schedules. Rather than a schedule that rotates every other day, for example, you can request three straight shifts at one time, followed by two shifts at another time.

Work From Home Time Management

Since COVID, more employees are working from home and having meetings with teams around the world. Try to schedule global meetings at a time, allowing you to maintain a normal sleep schedule. Also, try to avoid working too late or too early when working from home.

With more people working from home and managing family life with work, some workers show symptoms of shift work sleep disorder due to the issues related to working from home. Parents are working late at night or early in the morning when children are in bed. Others are working late at night only to return early in the morning.

Try to stick to a similar schedule while working from home to avoid the added stress of putting yourself into alternating shifts. Plan your work so that more things are done simultaneously every day, and take weekends off to avoid burnout. Not sticking to a schedule while working from home can greatly disrupt sleep patterns.

Also prioritize comfort during work, as it can be easier to get your work done if you’re not sore and stiff. It’s worth having the best seat cushion for an office chair when you’re sitting on it for hours a day.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder?

Shift work sleep disorder is often characterized by sleeping troubles and excessive daytime sleepiness. Shift workers may also feel the common side effects of chronic sleep deprivation, including headaches, trouble focusing, and a lack of energy. A shift worker with the disorder may also find themselves prone to irritability or impulsiveness.

How is shift work sleep disorder treated?

Establishing environmental cues for better sleep is one way to alleviate shift work sleep disorder. Light therapy tools, like a bright light box, can be used to help a worker feel more “awake” at night. Eating healthy and exercising regularly can also help them drift off to sleep better, as can minimizing disturbances and distractions in the bedroom.

Melatonin supplements may be recommended as a way for shift workers to swiftly fall asleep. There is also medication specifically approved for shift workers, such as prescription sleep aids and drugs that promote wakefulness. These are not meant to replace sleep and you should speak with a doctor about whether or not these medications are compatible with your lifestyle.

Does shift work sleep disorder go away?

Normally, yes, once a person stops working shifts at unusual hours, they should eventually break away from the effects of shift work sleep disorder. That said, the problems of shift work sleep disorder can linger, particularly if workers don’t take steps to get their sleep schedule back on track.

It’s best to use a bedtime or sleep calculator to figure out when you should be going to bed to get the full sleep needed. Simply enter your desired wake time, and the calculator will do the rest.

How does shift work affect mental health?

A 2020 study noted Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  that shift work is associated with lower moods and greater anxiety, along with cognitive impairment. All of these are also symptoms of sleep deprivation. Another 2020 study noted that shift workers, particularly women workers, have a greater risk of reduced mental health, especially when it comes to depression.

Is it normal to feel sick after a night shift?

Feeling sick or nauseated can be a side effect of sleep deprivation, so night shift workers may experience nausea if they haven’t slept in a while. Stomach troubles can also result if workers eat during a night shift, when their bodies feel like they should be resting. Lastly, dehydration as result of not drinking enough fluids during a shift can cause nausea.


A growing number of workers are working abnormal work hours for a growing number of reasons. With advances in technology and a global workforce, issues are no longer constrained to hospitality and labor but white-collar jobs.

Learning to recognize the signs of shift work sleep disorder and taking steps to manage it before things get out of hand is essential to work-life balance and effectiveness at work and in life.

About the author

Eric Ridenour is a health and wellness writer with a strong focus on sleep and nutrition. With a background in health science and psychology, Eric has a deep understanding of the connection between sleep and overall well-being. His expertise has been sought by various businesses and individuals, and his work has been featured in reputable publications such as Thrive Global, Drug Report, and Authority Magazine. Eric's commitment to promoting better sleep and comprehensive wellness is evident in his writing and consultations. He is a published author working on his second book.

View all posts

Discover the ultimate sleep system

Choose your mattress

Shop top-rated mattresses with proven sleep-boosting materials.

Get a pillow

We have the perfect pillow to pair with your mattress.

Browse Pillows

Pick out bedding

Bring out the best in your mattress with our soft and breathable bedding.

Browse Bedding