Shift Workers and Poor Sleep

This article accompanies Taking Sleep Seriously.

Shift workers maintain schedules that pit them against their bodies' circadian clocks, says Dr. Allan Pack, chief of the division of sleep medicine at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.

"What happens is that shift workers often go home and get to sleep quickly. Then they can't sustain sleep because that clock is saying they're supposed to be awake," says Pack, who is also director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School.

Given such challenges, it's not surprising that significant numbers of shift workers aren't sleeping as much as they should be. Consider a 2016 study of 6,338 U.S. employees, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, which found 62 percent of shift workers reporting short sleep duration (less than seven hours nightly), compared to 36 percent of daytime workers. Close to 20 percent of shift workers reported insomnia, versus just 8 percent of daytime workers saying the same. 

Consistently getting inadequate sleep naturally creates safety issues on the job, not to mention on the road home after a long shift, says Pack, who offers a novel suggestion for employers relying on large numbers of shift workers.

"A really good company would not only offer sleep-health education to employees, but would allow nap breaks," he says, "have specific policies in place for how to handle naps in the middle of the night."

Sep 6, 2017
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