Complications of Shift Work Disorder

Many factors—including age, family demands, and chronic medical conditions (e.g., sleep or psychiatric disorder)s—make shift work difficult. The ability to stay active during different times of the day varies among people, as does their preference for wake and sleep time. People who wake up early in the morning and are most active early in the day have a more difficult time adjusting to shift work than people who prefer to stay up late at night.

Predisposition to sleep pattern may figure largely into the lives of shift workers. Aging, however, has a significant detrimental effect on a person's ability to cope with shift work. It is common for a person who has been working shifts for years to start having difficulty as they grow older.

Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, which often surfaces later in life, or narcolepsy can compound the effects of shift work disorder.

Generally, mood cycles and physiological processes, like the fluctuation of hormone levels, play significant roles in sleep routine. These factors are, in turn, altered by frequently changing sleep habits. So there may be complications for a shift worker who suffers from, say, seasonal affective disorder or depression. Spending nights awake and days asleep may intensify the effects on a person with a psychiatric disorder.

Coping with the Socioeconomic Consequences of Shift Work Change

Shift work places demands on family, infrastructure, and the management of employee resources. Often, the time spent off work is as frustrating to the employee as late-night work. In approximately 30 percent of non-farming families in the United States, one spouse works a different shift. Industries are currently making efforts to reform and regulate the quality of shift work for their employees.

In addition to the breakdown of circadian rhythm, other factors keep employees from sleeping during the day. For example, their sleep is often interrupted by daytime phone calls from telemarketers. Shift workers may have family obligations that shorten their sleep time, such as caring for young children or an elderly family member. Consequently, shift workers tend to sleep poorly.

Many studies show that workers who frequently change shifts are generally more stressed than conventional day workers and that shift workers get less sleep overall. Studies have shown that, on average, shift workers sleep for 1.5 hours less a day than permanent day workers.

In fact, clinical studies have documented the lack of sleep in employees who claim to experience stress, and have differentiated these employees from others on the same schedule who do not claim to suffer stress. It seems as though certain people are better suited for shift work than others. And, yet the reality is that many industrial shift-working employees have severely limited options for occupation.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 05 Oct 2015