Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) – What Is It and How to Avoid It?

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Have you ever wondered how your Amazon package arrived so quickly?

Or, how you can get a delicious burger at any hour of the day?

It’s shift workers like us, working tirelessly around the clock that make these magical things happen, while the rest of the world sleeps. But unfortunately, it can come at a cost. 

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) - What Is It and How to Avoid It? Just because you work as a shift work, doesn't mean you are doomed! | | #shiftworksleepdisorder #SWSD #sleepdisorder #insomnia #narcolepsy #shiftwork

Keeping up with these demands of modern society means our bodies are unfortunately put at a higher risk of something called Shift Worker Sleep Disorder (SWSD). 

Why? We regularly work against our finely tuned body clocks, often resulting in less, high-quality sleep. Out of the 20% of the full-time workforce in the US involved in some form of shift work, approximately 20-40% of these people are affected by SWSD.

If you’re thinking (sarcastically) to yourself, this is just great… the good news is you’re not guaranteed to become another number.

Yes, there is no easy answer or exact science to overcome Shift Work Sleep disorder or Shift Workers Disorder but, there are some simple lifestyle measures you can put in place to avoid it and remain a healthy, happy shift worker – who even sleeps well!  Let’s dive right in.

What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)?

SWSD or Shift Work Syndrome as it’s often referred to as, is an avoidable, chronic, long-term health condition affecting shift workers operating outside the traditional 9 – 5 hours such as those working split shifts, night shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts.

It is characterized by excessive sleepiness which can affect your work, relationships at home and leisure time.

You may like to think about aShift Work Sleep Disorder sufferer like they are in insignificant ‘sleep debt’ which they can never seem to pay back.

It is usually diagnosed by the doctor asking a series of questions about recent sleep behaviors, reviewing your sleep diary (if asked to complete one), ruling out other health conditions such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea and undertaking sleep study testing.

Offical diagnosis is pretty hard and complex because it cannot be shown through a simple blood test but rather a series of questions and clinical assessments.  

Sleep enables our brains to process information effectively, make new pathways and allows us to make informed decisions. (source)

Sleep also allows us to learn new skills, regulate our behavior, control our emotions and heal and repairs heart and lung tissue.

I could go on for days, but I’ll spare you.

When we really think about, it’s incredible what is actually happening as we sleep and I guess why it leads to significant health problems, like Shift Work Sleep Disorder, when we have trouble getting it.   

Why Are Shift Workers Specifically Affected?

As previously mentioned, shift workers are essentially working against their tightly controlled circadian rhythm (body clock) which controls our sleep and wake cycle.

Due to working a variety of different shifts including night shift, shift workers don’t allow for these processes and sleep hormones to operate as they should because it’s essentially working backward and our bodies don’t like that too much.

This confusion prevents us from being able to sleep for our desired duration and/or obtain a high quality of sleep because it’s constantly trying to reassess and ‘tell the time’ so it knows what to do next.  

We further complicate the cycle when we return to ‘normal’ hours on our days off or while on vacation, catching up with our friends and families who live the regular 9 – 5 life. 

No wonder our brains are confused!

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder:

Suffers commonly experience excessive daytime tiredness and difficulty sleeping among a range of other symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating and headaches
  • Irritability leading to stress and issues within personal and professional relationships
  • Lack of energy, drive and decreased productivity
  • Insomnia or the inability to fall asleep when you need to
  • Inability to make quick decisions leading to safety concerns while driving or operating heavy machinery 

Let’s avoid this, shall we? We know we are (frighteningly) at a higher risk of Shift Work Sleep Disorder, so what can we do about?

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (Swsd) - What Is It and How to Avoid It? - Man sleeping on park bench - The Other Shift

Here are 6 Tips to Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Prioritizing sleep is the best way to avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder but we know that’s easier said than done.

These sleeping tips are straight to the point, no fluff and are ones we use every day and we hope you can take something positive away from it. 

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip #1 – Make Sleep a Priority

Despite a lack of routine and structure to your day, find ways to develop a schedule or system you consistently follow around bedtime, which is not dependent on the day of the week or time of the day.

It’s important to allow your brain to make connections between particular tasks and sleep

In the two hours before you plan to sleep, consider performing the following tasks:

  • Put on your blue light blocking glasses – regardless of the time of day
  • Take a warm shower
  • Relax – this looks different for everyone but consider reading, meditating, yoga poses or listening to an audiobook in the dark
  • Eat a light meal (if after night shift) and compliment it a few hours after by drinking tea such as chamomile, peppermint or green tea.  Check out our post about breakfast meal ideas here.
  • Use lavender and other essential oils – You may not be into this sleeping aid, but I highly recommend giving it a go. You will be impressed by the results.
  • Adjust the thermostat to a cool temperature as we discuss here
  • Secure your blackout blinds and have your eye mask and earplugs ready. These are our go-to eye masks
  • Turn on the fan or White Noise Sound MachineOpens in a new tab. for distraction
  • Put up your “Do Not Disturb SignOpens in a new tab.” (Amazon link) sign on the front door so that delivery people and friends will not knock or ring the doorbell.

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip #2 – Look After Yourself

Our bodies are constantly trying to tell us things, but we often don’t listen. Myself included.

I get cold sores and itchy eczema when I’m stressed, tired and exhausted. These issues drive me insane but it’s a useful physical stop point for me and time to reassess.

Take a look and listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Maybe it’s a headache, disturbed sleep, irritability, aches and pains, poor nail and hair growth, blemished skin or frequent common colds.

Really listen to your body and what it’s telling you to do.

Possible actions may be:

  • Be smart about your roster. Request if you’re able to and discuss your roster with the manager if you’re struggling.

Avoid moving from night to day shift and back to nights again too often. Avoid working the 3rd / late shift and needing to come back to the morning shift on a consistent basis and try and request at least two days off consecutively rather than split days off.

I understand the nature of some jobs, but investigating different options is important for your health so don’t be afraid to talk to your manager. 

  • Consider swapping onto 12 hour days or even 12 hour nights. If accepted in your organization. The shifts are longer, but you have more time off in between.

Be tough on yourself when considering swapping onto these extended shifts as they are not for everyone, but they may also be the answer you’ve been looking for.

  • Be careful about accepting overtime too quickly. I am well aware of the financial incentives that come with overtime, but ask your tired brain, is it really worth it.

Will working the extra hours mean you have to take the next 3 days off because you’re sick and washed out? Think twice before agreeing to extra hours.

  • Nap when you want to, even if that’s at work. Sleep deprivation is real and you may need to stop for a nap from time to time. 20 – 30 minutes max will do wonders

We extensively talk about the coffee nap which is totally a real thing and simply revolutionary for us shift workers.

  • Allow for adequate rest and downtime on your days off and weekends. Go out, socialize and have a good time but consider not saying ‘yes’ immediately when invited somewhere.

This is a huge trap for me as I have FOMO (fear of missing out) but it often gets me into trouble with my body.

  • Keep a sleep diary. This may seem a little out of left field, but writing down your sleep experience can help identify problems and monitor progression over time when solutions are put in place.
  • Address and manage (as best you can) pre-existing health concerns. Address things like abnormal hormone levels, psychological disorders like depression and sleep apnea, as they can increase symptoms of shift work disorder. 

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip # 3 – Avoid Blue Light

The more I learn in this space the more passionate I become.

Avoiding blue light, for us is the key to better sleep. You fall to sleep quicker, stay asleep for longer and don’t wake up feeling groggy, but it’s super hard to do because the blue light is everywhere!

It comes from your lights, TV, phone, bedside lamp, fridge lights, and even the sun. Learn more about the dangers of blue light here.

Here are three ways to avoid the blue light:

These glasses have changed everything in regards to sleep for Dan and I and we cannot recommend them highly enough.

  • Change your phone setting to night shift mode as we explained here and charge it in a different room from where you sleep.

Reducing your screen time not only avoids the blue light but allows you to stop and reflect on the day and not take in new information from social media, sports statistics and news headlines.

  • Instead of watching TV or scrolling through your phone, why not listen to podcast or audiobook? Sign up for an Amazon Audible membership and never go without a book again! Click on the image below to find out more.
  • Sit in a dark room with the only light source coming from a candle. Not very fun I agree.  

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip #4 – Establish Relationship Boundaries

The people around us have a huge impact on our sleep and how much we are able to obtain. They often want to support us but don’t really know-how.

Openly asking them to help you create a quiet, dark and peaceful setting will become a team effort and they will feel more involved in your life, leading to more respect of your sleep.

We suggest having honest, open discussions with those people living with you and don’t be afraid to change something in the future if it’s not working. 

These conversations can be challenging, touchy and sometimes intimidating, but well worth your trouble in the name of sleep!

Just as a tip, I find writing down what I want to say, particularly when planning to have a challenging conversation, helps to keep me on track. 

Here are 3 things to discuss with your family, friends, and housemates regarding your sleep

  • Ask your family members and housemates to keep noise to a minimum

Avoid vacuuming, dishwashing, unpacking the dishwasher, loud TV, radio and stereo volume and other noisy activities. We created an entire blog post about this, which you can read here.

  • Say no (if possible) to having stressful, emotional and/or serious conversations before bed

You can re-visit the conversation in 7 – 9 hours time because no doubt the issue still exists and hopefully may have even subsided.

These conversations increase production of our stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. 

This is why the relaxing element we discussed in tip 1 so essential.

  • Do you have children?

The communication between yourself and partner/spouse needs to be on point. Is your partner/spouse aware of the real dangers of sleep deprivation?

Talk about this and establish a plan of attack. Can they take the kids out of the house for a few hours while you sleep? Or can another family member or friend help mind them? 

– If the kids are home while you’re sleeping, ask if they could only wake you for an emergency. It might be worth having a chat about what an emergency actually looks like. No, the cat weeing on the carpet or the fact they pulled your hair doesn’t count.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your roster manager and see if you can establish some regularity within your roster, in order to plan for childcare.

You never know if you don’t try, right?

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip - Two kids pillow fight standing on bed - The Other Shift
Oh yeah, establishing a kids play area away from where you sleep is a great idea too!

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder Tip # 5 – Avoid Caffeine and Eat Healthily

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine a few hours before sleep despite how much you crave them, particularly when working a night shift. Try these 10 healthy night shift snacksOpens in a new tab. instead if you seek a boost overnight.  

We have found that eating fatty foods prior to sleep (within a few hours) directly impacts on our quality of sleep as you feel bloated and uncomfortable.

You know the feeling of trying to sleep just after eating pizza and drinking soda, right? That’s what we’re talking about.

Stick to high protein meals full of fruits and vegetables and try adding some green tea or lemon water to help digestion.

If the Keto diet is something you have been considering, we published an entire post about it specifically for shift workers here.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (Swsd) - What Is It and How to Avoid It? - Green salad with servers - The Other Shift

Avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) Tip #6 – Exercise

Exercise indirectly effects sleep and avoiding SWSD but is an absolute must for us, so we had to include it.

We are no personal trainers but we find that regular exercise significantly helps our quality of sleep and positive headspace needed to fall to sleep.

The timing of exercise is important though. Try to avoid heavy, cardio based exercise within the two hours before you plan to go to bed as it can lead to difficulty falling asleep.

However, if this is the only time you have throughout your day, we believe it’s better to do it later at night than not at all.

If you’re wondering where to start in regards to your exercise routine, jumping rope has been incredible for me personally because it’s quick and over before you know it.

The key is to find an activity which gets your heart pumping, works up a sweat but is something you really enjoy. Keep searching if you haven’t found it yet –  you never know, you might just find the answer in your living roomHere are some possible ideas to overcome your current exercise excuses!

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (Swsd) - What Is It and How to Avoid It? - Girl stretching lying of floor of gym - The Other Shift

Summary: Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) – What Is It and How to Avoid It?

Unfortunately, there is no pill or special formula that can make us immune but more a combination of things we can do in different aspects of our life.

We hope these six tips to avoid Shift Work Sleep Disorder are a game-changer in your personal and professional life. 

Did you enjoy this article or feel like you have anything else to add? I’d love to discuss it with you in the comment section below this article!


Emma signature |

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

One thought on “Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) – What Is It and How to Avoid It?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts