Straight, No Chaser: Late Night Shift Work and Shift Work Sleep Disorder

I used to love to work third shift. Generally, I’d be the only “boss” around, so I really got to enjoy my staff in a way that wasn’t possible during the day shifts. The only real problem was that after two shifts, it was hard to function during the days in between shifts. After three it got harder to function during the shifts. I’d find myself fighting moodiness and catching colds more easily.
Well, as luck would have it, there’s a name for that pain: shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). It shouldn’t be a surprise that working nights is problematic. Night work runs counter to the body’s natural biological cycle (called the circadian rhythm), and its attempts to compensate still don’t result in ideal body function, particularly related to sleep.
What is shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)?
SWSD is the consequence of recurrent sleep interruption in a way that runs counter to our circadian rhythms. Individuals working between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. are particularly at risk for SWSD, although not everyone in this situation develops SWSD.
What are the symptoms of SWSD?
The most common symptoms of SWSD are difficulty sleeping and excessive sleepiness. Other symptoms associated with SWSD include increased irritability, moodiness, higher risk for illness, difficulty concentrating, headaches or lack of energy. Those with SWSD are more prone to have accidents and make errors at work. Additional discussion of long-term health effects of SWSD is available at
Here are some tips to help you handle working nights and addressing SWSD.

  • Go to sleep as soon as possible after work.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule that includes at least seven hours of sleep every day.
  • Control your home environment when you’re trying to sleep. Limit light from coming into your bedroom and keep things quiet. Discuss this with your roommates so they don’t engage in disturbing activities.
  • Understand that the effects are compounded the more nights you work in a row, as night shift workers sleep less than day workers. Decrease the number of night shifts you work in a row and try to limit shifts to five a week or four in a row.
  • Attempt to normalize your life while awake (excluding your sleep time). Engage in routine social activities when possible.
  • Avoid long commutes.
  • Avoid rotating shifts, which are even more difficult to deal with than it is to work the same shift for a longer period of time.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine during your home time.
  • Plan a nap just before or during the night shift, if allowed. These can improve alertness.
  • Additional medical interventions are available at