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Is Work “Shifting” Your Sleep?

by | Mar 16, 2023 | Sleep Difficulty

In 2022 there were around 120.2 million full-time wage and salary workers in the U.S. These workers ranged from every occupation imaginable, working different types of shifts. Shift work refers to any work schedule that falls outside the hours of 7:00 am and 6:00 pm; including evening, night, and rotating shifts. According to the Sleep Foundation, an estimated 20% of the population in industrialized countries works in a job with nonstandard shifts. Approximately 10% to 38% of these workers suffer from shift work disorder, a common issue among shift workers that can adversely affect an individual’s work as well as their daily life.

4 Types of Shift Schedules

When it comes to scheduling rotating shifts, there are four main types.


The Continental schedule requires three teams of employees to change between eight-hour day, swing, and night shifts over a block of seven consecutive work days. A two or three day off period will usually follow the seven-day block.


The Panama schedule is referred to as a 2-2-3 with employees working two or three consecutive days interspersed with two or three consecutive days off during a 14-day cycle of 12-hour shifts.


Following a four-week cycle, employees on the Dupont schedule switch between day and night shifts, for three or four consecutive days at a time. One to three consecutive off days are interspersed throughout the cycle as well as an off period of seven days.

Southern Swing

The Southern Swing schedule requires employees to work eight-hour shifts for seven days in a row following the same day, swing, or night shift hours. The next seven consecutive work days will this time follow a shift and are broken up by a period of two or three off days.

How to Recognize Shift Work Disorder

Shift work disorder is characterized by sleep problems that stem from working long or irregular hours. This condition is also marked by excessive sleepiness when awake or an inability to sleep when needed.

Creating a negative impact on daily life, shift work disorder can cause different issues among individuals struggling with this condition.

  • Disease
  • Alcohol and drug dependency
  • Poor diet
  • Worker safety

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, there are two primary symptoms of shift work disorder: insomnia and excessive sleepiness.


Insomnia is a sleep condition characterized by the difficulty of either falling or staying asleep that is accompanied by daytime impairments related to those sleep troubles. While symptoms can vary depending on the shift, the Sleep Foundation states that the average person with shift work disorder loses one to four hours of sleep per night. Although they are considered separate conditions, a diagnosis of shift work disorder often relies on insomnia symptoms.

Excessive Sleepiness

Excessive sleepiness brought about by shift work disorder may reveal itself as fatigue and reduced alertness during work hours with the need to nap at least once during a shift. Shift workers have a higher risk of traffic and work accidents, especially after shifts ending between 2:00 am and 6:00 am.


For anyone experiencing consistent difficulties with sleep, it is important to start a sleep log in order to keep track of recurring symptoms. Your sleep log should report persistent symptoms for at least three months with disturbed sleep-wake patterns for at least two weeks. In addition, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine states a certain criteria for a diagnosis of shift work disorder exists to help determine the severity of the condition.

  • You must experience insomnia symptoms when trying to sleep and/or excessive sleepiness while they are awake.
  • You must experience a reduction in total sleep time due to a work schedule that overlaps with a traditional sleep schedule.
  • Your symptoms cannot be attributed to another sleep disorder, medical condition, side effects from medication, substance abuse, or poor sleep hygiene.


While it is always important to communicate with your doctor when experiencing trouble sleeping, there are practices used to minimize the symptoms of shift work disorder including bright light therapy, medication and lifestyle modifications.

Light Therapy and Light Avoidance

With light being one of the most powerful drivers of the circadian rhythm, light therapy and light avoidance can help shift your sleep cycle while reducing fatigue, minimizing work errors, improving your mood, and setting the stage for better sleep.

Supplements and Medication

Sleep-promoting supplements and medications are available, but should only be added to your sleep routine after consulting with your doctor.

An important hormone related to sleep, melatonin is connected to the time of day, increasing when it’s dark and decreasing when it’s light. Depending on your shift, the use of a melatonin supplement could be more or less beneficial as it is not clear whether it can improve daytime sleep quality and duration in people whose jobs require them to work outside the traditional morning to evening schedule.
The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has approved two wakefulness-promoting agents for treating shift work disorder: modafinil and armodafinil. Both medications are used to treat excessive sleepiness, but it should be noted that they will not cure a sleep disorder and should not be used in place of getting enough sleep.

On the other hand, sleep-promoting medications such as prescription sleep aids, can also be used to address the symptoms of shift work disorder. It is important to be diligent in using any prescription drug safely and at the discretion of your doctor as they can be habit-forming and result in adverse side effects.

Lifestyle Changes

Changes applied to your daily lifestyle can also help to reduce shift work disorder symptoms.

Shift work disorder can cause major problems and increase the risk of accidents in the workplace. If you are experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, you could benefit from scheduling an appointment with the knowledgeable staff at a sleep center. Your health and safety is a primary concern at the Comprehensive Sleep and Breathing Disorders Center where you will receive a thorough screening process to create the appropriate treatment specific to your needs.