Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
New Brunswick • Somerset

Night-Shift Workers

Night-Shift Workers Are Prone to Sleep Disorders

For the 15 million Americans who work during hours other than the traditional "9-to-5," getting enough quality sleep can be difficult. These self-proclaimed "owls" are fighting their bodies' natural sleep patterns - and losing.

Employees who work between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. are struggling against their natural wake-sleep pattern. While some can "go against the grain" better than others, night-shift workers typically get about 10 hours less sleep a week than their day-shift co-workers and many have undiagnosed sleep disorders that may ultimately catch up to them and affect their health.

When sleep deprived, people think and move more slowly, make more mistakes, and have difficulty remembering things. These negative effects lead to lower job productivity and can cause accidents. The financial loss to U.S. businesses is estimated at $18 billion each year.

The human body naturally follows a 24-hour cycle of wakefulness and sleepiness that is regulated by an internal circadian clock that is linked to nature's pattern of light and darkness. The clock regulates cycles in body temperature, hormones, heart rate and other body functions. For humans, the desire to sleep is strongest between midnight and 6 a.m. Many people are alert in the morning, with a natural dip in alertness in the mid-afternoon. It is difficult to reset the internal circadian clock.

You probably know people who are "morning larks" or "night owls." However, night-shift workers get less sleep overall, often are less productive and are more prone to a variety of medical issues.

Night-shift workers often experience more:

  • Stomach problems, especially heartburn and indigestion
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Colds
  • Flu
  • Weight gain 
  • Heart problems
  • Blood pressure issues

In addition, the risk of workplace accidents and automobile crashes rises for tired shift workers, especially on the drive to and from work.

Staying Awake on the Job
The lack of prolonged, quality sleep can take its toll on night-shift workers. In fact, as many as 20 percent of night-shift workers report falling asleep on the job, according to a survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.

Experts have found that productivity for these workers is at a critical low between 3 and 4 a.m., when the body's core temperature is at its lowest point of the night.

Before reporting to work for the night shift, workers might benefit from a nap prior to going to work and may find splitting their sleep time between early morning and early evening will help maximize the number of hours of sleep they are able to fit in. Shift workers should get plenty of bright light after waking to ensure that they are adequately rested and alert before clocking in. Keeping the bedroom dark and cool can help facilitate sleep during daylight hours. Using blackout eyeshades and earplugs and turning on a fan also can help drown out daytime sights and sounds. While at work, bright light can help trick the body into thinking that it is day time and will make staying awake and alert easier. At the end of the night shift, workers should wear dark sunglasses when returning home to help keep the brain at rest and enable workers to sleep once home.

If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder, the first step is to visit your primary care physician, who will evaluate your condition and determine whether it is necessary to schedule a sleep study. The overnight study will be evaluated by a board-certified sleep medicine physician and shared with your doctor. Depending on the diagnosis, a variety of treatments is available to help patients feel better, have increased energy and benefit from a healthy night's sleep.

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