What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)?

Shift work disorder (SWSD) affects people who work outside of the traditional office hours 9-5. Typically working through the night in graveyard shifts, rotating shifts, or split shifts. Night shift work deprives the body of stimulating daylight and vitamin D from the sun. Shift work sleep disorder causes an imbalance in the body where your internal clock and cognitive functions are in disagreement. Your circadian rhythm is alerting you for sleep but your brain needs to remain active to do your job. Rebalancing harmony in the body while working through the night is possible when you know the symptoms of SWSD and how to tackle them.    

Your body is alerted to prepare for sleep when the sun goes down

What Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder SWSD?

Your sleep and wake cycle is guided by your circadian rhythm. Your body is alerted to prepare for sleep when the sun goes down. The sunlight in the morning ignites the neurons in your brain and gives you that get up and go to seize the day. Shift work disorder causes sleep problems, excessive daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating, anxiety, depression, vitamin deficiency, and irritability. You may not be able to sleep when your shift is over or lack the ability to concentrate at work from feeling fatigued. An exhausting catch-22.        

The symptoms of shift work are similar to that of sleep deprivation in that you feel you are functioning with chronic sleep debt

Symptoms of Shift Work Sleep Disorder 

The symptoms of shift work sleep disorder are similar to that of sleep deprivation in that you feel you are functioning with chronic sleep debt and inability to sleep when you try sleeping during the day. Are you a shift worker experiencing the following?:

  • Chronic fatigue at work and at home
  • Trouble concentrating on tasks or inability to retain newly learned information 
  • Inability to sleep at bedtime 
  • Broken sleep (crashing out from exhaustion for short bursts of time)
  • Little to no refreshing sleep  
  • Loss of motivation 
  • Irritability and arguing with loved ones 
  • Feeling depressed or anxious
  • Headaches
  • Relying on a high sugar diet and caffeine to get you through your waking hours    

Most people will experience some of these symptoms at some point in their lives. If you’re having trouble adjusting to night shift work ask your doctor for a checkup to rule out any underlying conditions. Implementing some healthy routines could help you adjust to your new work schedule.      

Health Consequences of SWSD

Sleep deprivation lowers the immune system and causes you to be more susceptible to colds and flu. Inability to concentrate and making mistakes at work are more likely when feeling exhausted. Accidents are more likely to occur, drowsy driving causes up to 6,000 fatal accidents each year. Your health can suffer greatly from long term sleep deprivation; increased risk of breast or prostate cancer, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, mood disorder, and dependency on drugs or alcohol.      

Shift Work Sleep Disorder vs Insomnia

SWSD and insomnia share similar symptoms. Insomnia is a chronic difficulty in falling asleep and staying asleep. Shift work disorder is a separate condition from insomnia but insomnia is an element of SWSD diagnosis. Those who work outside of traditional hours are more likely to be diagnosed with shift work sleep disorder. While those diagnosed with insomnia may be confirmed along with another medical condition.  

How Is Shift Work Sleep Disorder Diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your work hours and hours of sleep to determine if you have a sleep disorder. Keep a sleep diary for a week or two before your visit to the doctor, all the information you can give about your sleep time, food intake, and mood can help your doctor create a holistic plan to get you back on track. They will also want to rule out any serious sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.     

How to Manage Shift Work Sleep Disorder SWSD

Lifestyle Changes

  • Keep a regular bedtime and wake time, even on days off
  • Eat a healthy diet of vegetables, fruit, meat, and drink plenty of water
  • Wear sunglasses if going from a dark to light environment after work
  • Avoid caffeine after midnight  

Work-Style Changes  

  • If possible, stagger your work shifts (one day on, one day off), (five days on, two days off), etc. having some days to recover can help recharge your energy 
  • Get some fresh air on your lunch break, it is recharging and sunlight gives you valuable vitamin D
  • Wear noise-canceling ear muffs if you work in an industrial environment to reduce stress  


    • Install blackout blinds in your bedroom
    • Keep electronics (especially your cell) out of your bedroom 
    • Use a white noise machine to drown out daytime noise 
    • Put a sign on your front door to ask not to knock or ring the doorbell  


    Excessive sleepiness from shift work sleep disorder can make you feel like you’re coming down with the flu. The adjustment can take a little time for your internal body clock and your body to get used to. Night owls may appreciate night shift work but early morning risers can learn to adapt and overcome the short-term effects of sleep deprivation. A multivitamin supplement could be beneficial along with vitamin D as you’re not getting sunlight on your skin. It’s vital to nourish your body with a regular healthy meal plan, get some fresh air, and drink water every day to ease sleep disorder symptoms.