Shift Work Sleep Disorder- What you NEED to know!

black and white stark picture of a woman laying on a bed. No covers or pillow. possibly suffering from shift work sleep disorder

The Vampire Lifestyle

Nearly 15 million Americans work a permanent night shift or regularly rotate in and out of night shifts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics!

I am one of those night owls!  I love living my life in the middle of the night. If vampires were advertising for membership…I’d be first in line!  I was a bartender in college and for the past 15 years I have worked a graveyard shift and I love it! Their is something magical that happens between 3-5 a.m. when the rest of the world is asleep.  It is only in the last 3 years or so that I have started noticing my own physiology changing.  I began feeling like I wasn’t getting quality sleep.  I woke up sore and exhausted and had trouble falling asleep when I got home from work. I would fall asleep AT WORK because I found it impossible to stay awake!! I asked myself why I was so damned tired all the time.  I had never heard of Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)!

Someone suggested that I might be suffering from SWSD.  I used to cat nap for an hour or two and wake refreshed, able to function for another 12 hours! Not any longer! I realized I was just exchanging my bed for my couch and sleeping through all my days off.  I wasn’t able to keep up with house work and my friendships suffered. Most alarmingly, I wasn’t able to be effective for my 5 year old, Alexis. Being an adult was becoming hard and I was irritable.

The Revelation- What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?

I was intrigued and began a bit of research. Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) occurs when your natural circadian rhythms are disrupted by an unusual pattern of sleep. Our bodies fine tune their performance by relying on the environment for cues .  So it makes sense that we are programmed to sleep when it’s dark and quiet and be active when it is daytime.  This pattern of sleep clicks like two polarized sides of a magnet.  But what happens when you turn those magnets around?  They no longer function together.  They are, in fact, repulsed by one another.  That is the type of reaction a third shift sleeper experiences!  How many of us have heard this complaint from a disgruntled 3rd shift coworker: I love the people, but hate the hours?? Studies suggest that people who have worked Third Shift for a period of time might begin to suffer many symptoms:

  1. A disruption in sleep duration- many third shifters report suffering insomnia, inability to sleep longer than 4 hours at a time, and light or restless sleep.
  2. Weakened immune systems- if you’ve ever worked a 3rd shift job, it’s glaringly apparent that you are sick more often than your daytime counterparts! Many 3rd shifters report always feeling “run down!”
  3. Depression- many factors play a role in depression. Lack of sunlight, troubled sleep, inability to connect with loved ones and friends on a regular basis. Experiencing scattered thoughts or feelings, an inability to focus.
  4. Trouble maintaining relationships. This is a very common complaint amongst overnight workers. Because you sleep when everyone else is awake, you do not get the opportunity to visit your friends or loved ones nearly enough. I know I miss out on a lot of birthday outings and fun parties. I feel disconnected from my friends and family and oftentimes they don’t understand my complicated sleep schedule! I often hear “I don’t know when to call you, I don’t want to wake you up!”

Third shift sleepers often feel like they just cannot catch up!  Over a long time period of time, sleep deprivation can contribute to a multitude of health and personal issues.  Industries that require third shift workers: hospital staff, fire fighters, police officers and factory workers to name a few, have started to address SWSD as a growing concern by providing “cat nap” areas in the workplace and insurance coverage for treatment.

Shedding The Coffin- Treatments for SWSD

A variety of medical and non medical treatments exists:

  1.  Provigil and Nuvigil are two medications that can increase alertness and help combat that compelling need to sleep during third shift work hours. You’ll need to consult a doctor in order to begin this course of medication.
  2.  Some 3rd shifters use hypnotism and suggestion to help relax and fall asleep. Who knew counting sheep actually works?
  3.  Melatonin is a natural chemical you can take over the counter in pill form.  Our bodies naturally produce Melatonin to increase drowsiness a few hours before bedtime.
  4.  Some doctors suggest using a lightbox to help realign your sleep timing.  Light acts as a very powerful signal to our internal clock, helping to shift our sleep times forward and backward. Interestingly this same type of UltraViolet light box is being used to help people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder….but that’s an entire other post!!
  5.  This next one was huge for me. You can greatly affect the quality of your sleep by keeping your room super dark with black out shades (here are the ones I love!) and also by keeping the temperature in your sleep space cool.
  6. Lastly, using a white noise machine may help drown out the hustle and bustle of the “normal” people going about their noisy daytime activities and help relax you!

Special Sleep Concerns for Mommies who Hustle

The challenge of working a 3rd shift job can have both positive and negative effects for Pink Collar Ladies (and men). Because I spend most of my professional life at night, I am able to spend most of my daytime hours with my daughter. I take her to school, run her to most of her extracurriculars and still grocery shop and finish work around the house. Being available during the day ensures I get stuff done. I always feel productive!! But my time management skills suck. Most days, I don’t leave enough time to sleep. I have recently employed a few tactics to help me sleep more.

As I mentioned earlier, I purchased and installed room darkening shades! The feeling of walking into my bedroom at noon and slipping in complete darkness automatically starts to relax me, preparing me to sleep right away! I also realized that I needed to eat more regularly. How many of us are literally so busy that we forget to eat? But the moment I lay down, my tummy gurgles reminding me that the 7a.m. Bowl of Captain Crunch (yes I’m an adult and it’s my favorite cereal!!) isn’t sufficient. I eat several smaller meals throughout the day and I keep healthier snacks in my car. Apples and peanut butter is a huge fav for my daughter and I! We also both love cheese or lunch meat on crackers. To keep me on task, I set an alarm every day reminding me that it’s time to go upstairs and sleep before work. I don’t compromise. When the alarm sounds, I kiss my baby good night and lay down. Otherwise I’d get sucked into a project (like sorting my copious amounts of Tupperware…..Next blog topic: How to sort and control your food storage devices!!)

Lastly, I’m lucky, my friends seem to really understand my unusual sleep habits. I’ll admit, I need to do better at keeping in touch with them. In this task, social media is Queen! I am able to follow and comment on my friend’s posts. I also text message a lot and I’m on the phone a fair amount. I also visit with my group of friends as often as possible. Even if it means only staying a few hours and leaving early for work.

The Pretty Package

Listen, I chose to work a 3rd shift job. I love it and no other work schedule offers so much cherished time with my daughter! I can put her to bed at night (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like) and I’m home before she wakes up. For her it’s like I’ve never left! By recognizing that I have an actual issue and addressing it, I’ve been able to maintain this life style happily for 15 years. I still screw up and many people who know me well are still concerned that I don’t sleep enough.

Managing my disorder is an ever changing process, but I feel that I have been able to greatly reduce the damage SWSD has had on my life! I have more energy and feel more productive! But most importantly, I’m a much calmer, more effective mommy. I’m more awake and engaged for her. We are active and have a ton of fun together! But if any of you see those vampires advertising…..let me know!!!

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