Staying on top of shift work

A shift worker is anyone who follows a work schedule that is outside of the typical '9 to 5' business day, including doctors and nurses, pilots, bridge builders, police officers, customer service representatives and commercial drivers.

Risks involved with shift work

While shift work does create potential productivity advantages, it also has many inherent risks. Some of the most serious and persistent problems shift workers face are frequent sleep disturbance and associated excessive sleepiness. Sleepiness/fatigue in the workplace can lead to poor concentration, absenteeism, accidents, errors, injuries and fatalities. The issue becomes more alarming when you consider that shift workers are often employed in the most dangerous of jobs, such as firefighting, emergency medical services, law enforcement and security.

The main complaint for people with shift work sleep disorder is excessive sleepiness. Other symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Disrupted sleep schedules
  • Reduced performance
  • Difficulties with personal relationships
  • Irritability/depressed mood

Staying on top of shift work

For some shift workers, napping is essential. It can be extremely effective at eliminating fatigue-related accidents and injuries and reducing workers' compensation costs. Although most employers do not allow napping in the workplace, a ban on napping may soon prove to be a legal liability.

Here are some tips for sleeping during the day:

  • Wear dark glasses to block out the sunlight on your way home.
  • Keep to the same bedtime and wake time schedule, even on weekends.
  • Eliminate noise and light from your sleep environment (use eye masks and earplugs).
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages and foods close to bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol; although it may seem to improve sleep initially, it actually disturbs sleep later in the night.
  • Avoid long commutes and extended hours.
  • Take short nap breaks throughout the shift.
  • Work with others to help keep you alert.
  • Try to be active during breaks (e.g., take a walk, shoot hoops in the parking lot or even exercise).
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage (coffee, tea, colas) to help maintain alertness early in the shift.
  • Don't leave the most tedious or boring tasks to the end of your shift when you are apt to feel the drowsiest. Night-shift workers are most sleepy around 4:00-5:00 a.m.