Tips for Managing Shift Work

Shift Work Image- Masterfile

There are some general guidelines for decreasing the effects of shift work:

  1. Decrease the number of night shifts worked in a row. Shift workers working the night shift sleep less than day workers and become progressively more sleep deprived over several days. If one can limit the number of third shifts to five or less, with days off in between, recovery from sleep deprivation is more likely. If working a 12-hour shift instead of the usual 8 hours, it is recommended that one limit work to four shifts in a row. Furthermore, one should optimally have more than 48 hours off after a string of night shifts.
  2. Avoid extended work hours; this includes working prolonged shifts and excessive overtime, and taking short breaks.
  3. Avoid long commutes; they use up valuable time that could be spent sleeping.
  4. Avoid, rotating shifts more than once a week. It is more difficult to deal with such alteration than it is to work the same shift for a longer period of time. The sequence of shift rotation can be important as well. Working the first shift, then the second shift, and then the third shift is easier than working the first, the third, and then the second shifts.
  5. Get sufficient sleep on days off. Practice good sleep hygiene by planning and arranging a sleep schedule and by avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
  6. Avoid reliance on stimulants, both over-the-counter and otherwise. At best, caffeine, uppers, and up-all-night agents only temporarily fool the body into thinking its functioning properly, which further complicates sleep disorder.

Treatment for Shift Work Disorder

In addition to the guidelines, the practice of proper sleep hygiene, and the adherence to an optimal shift-work schedule, some patients of SWC find medication to be helpful. Antidepressants, which are used in the treatment of various sleep disorders, are known to positively affect and sometimes readjust circadian rhythm.

Patients who experience the effects of SWC often find that the use of benzodiazepines results in predictable, easier sleep. Treatment for patients with SWC who suffer from insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness can involve varying the levels of drug dosage, entrainment, and stress-reduction therapy.

Although substance abuse worsens the effects of sleep disorders, some experimental approaches to the treatment of sleep-phase syndromes involve the use of caffeine to regulate wake times and eating schedules. Perhaps entrainment is possible through the use of artificial cues, which assume the role played by conventional indicators, like light and dark.

Industry Response to Shift Work Change

Many people work shifts because of socioeconomic considerations and, for them, stopping shift work is not a realistic option. As a result, industry is currently consulting with companies who specialize in industrial operations management. Companies that operate 24 hours a day are establishing policies to standardize the frequency, duration, and type of shift work.

These measures usually involve personal diagnostic surveys and employee interviews that are aimed at understanding employee needs and concerns. Many shift-work employees are finding that their complaints are being heard.

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

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 05 Oct 2015