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Here’s How to Deal with Shift Work Sleep Disorder

If you are a shift worker, you may have a sleep disorder and not even know it.

Key points

  • Ways shift workers can improve sleep include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and creating an ideal sleep environment.
  • Limiting technology use before bed to reduce blue light exposure, using relaxation techniques and taking naps can also help improve sleep.
  • Even with good sleep hygiene, it's possible to experience sleep disturbances. Seeking treatment may be necessary in some cases.

As with any sleep disturbance, positive lifestyle changes can go a long way in making sure you get the sleep you deserve when your schedule allows it. Give these suggestions a try if you’re not sure where to begin — you may be surprised at how well they can work.

1. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule

It might be hard to get yourself in the groove, but following a consistent sleep schedule is one of the best things you can do for good sleep. This is especially true if you work while others are sleeping.

The key is going to bed at the same time every night/day, and waking up at the same time the following day.

It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals at least a few hours before bedtime. You don’t want your body to be working overtime while you’re trying to sleep.

2. Create an Ideal Sleep Environment

It may seem like a no-brainer, but you want to make sure your bedroom is a perfect environment for sleeping. There’s a lot you can do to ensure that your sleeping environment is actually conducive to getting proper sleep.

If you work at night and sleep during the day, blackout curtains are essential for blocking out any sunlight or ambient light that may be keeping you awake. If it isn’t practical to add blackout curtains to your sleep environment, a quality blackout sleep eye mask is a very good alternative. This is especially true if your environment requires you to frequently change sleeping locations.

If you’re the only person in your sleep location that follows your specific schedule, it can be tricky to sleep through noise — so I recommend blocking it out.

3. Limit Technology Use Before Bed

If you are going to sleep when it is still dark out, but outside your normal circadian time, you still need to be aware of electronics use before bed. Electronic devices have become a very important part of everyday life, but they can make getting a good night’s sleep difficult. The blue light emitted by devices like phones, tablets, computer screens, and even televisions actually inhibit your brain’s ability to produce melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep on time.

However, blue light itself is not inherently bad — natural blue light produced by the sun is what typically determines your sleep-wake cycle. Overexposure to artificial blue light is what really causes sleep difficulty.

To combat this, I recommend putting your devices away at least 60 minutes before bed. Or, if you absolutely must use your devices before bed, you can use blue-light-blocking glasses. Just make sure they have amber-colored lenses since those are most effective against blue light reaching your eyes.

4. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are simple practices you can perform to help yourself calm down, deal with stress, and sleep well. Incorporating one or more relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine can make a huge difference in your sleep quality and your total hours of sleep.

Some of my favorite relaxation techniques are:

There’s really something out there for everyone. Give one of these a try and see how you feel after.

5. Take Naps

Whether you’re taking a long nap or a “power nap,” a good siesta can make a big difference in your energy levels and help you get through the day. Some benefits of napping include increased alertness, reduced stress, better stamina, and a stronger immune system.

Make sure you don’t nap for more than 90 minutes though — napping for too long or too close to bedtime can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep later. Plus, napping for too long could lead to one of those “Where am I?” hazes you sometimes feel once you wake up. The goal is to feel more awake and alert after a nap, not disoriented and groggy.

When to Seek Help

Even with a proper sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene, it’s still possible to experience sleep disturbances. If you’re struggling to get the rest you need and your work and home life are suffering because of it, it’s vital to seek treatment.

A simple consultation or even a sleep study could be just what you need to start sleeping well. Your doctor or a sleep expert can help you determine whether your sleep problem is caused by a sleep disorder like insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or a circadian rhythm disorder like shift work sleep disorder. It can be tricky to get the sleep you need while you’re adjusting to an unconventional work schedule, but it’s so important that you do. Not only can proper sleep improve your work performance, but it’s also vital to keep yourself safe both on and off the clock.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, D, ABSM; FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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