When Thomas Edison captured electricity and invented the light bulb, it created a whole new world of opportunity, enabling humans to light up the night. The invention of the electric light neatly dovetailed with the Industrial Revolution in which most goods came to be produced in factories. As factory efficiency grew greater, owners realized that they could run their machinery all night long and bring workers in round the clock, and thus shift work was created. Though shift work made an enormous economic difference and increased productivity tremendously, it also introduced sleep problems for which there are no good solutions.
Some factories utilize twelve-hour shifts, while others operate using three separate eight-hour shifts, considered morning, afternoon and evening. In addition to manufacturing settings, hospitals and other businesses that operate around the clock require people to work on shifts. The problem with shift work and sleep is that no matter how hard people try to reconcile their work schedule with the rest of their lives, it is an extremely difficult thing to achieve.
Not only is it extremely difficult to overcome the brain’s responses to visual cues that have been programmed throughout our human evolution, but there is also the problem that the rest of the world is operating and functioning at the opposite end of the clock as the workers are. Phone calls, lawn mowers, teacher meetings, social events, all are scheduled for the hours when shift workers need to get their sleep.
For shift workers who have families, and particularly those who have children, the desire to participate in childcare and in helping around the house is in direct opposition to the need to get eight hours of sleep following a shift. Older workers have a particularly difficult time with shift work, as they tire more easily and adjust to a new schedule more slowly. Also, the amount of deep sleep that we get as we age decreases, which means that our bodies get less time to reset and refresh. This can result in health problems, including headaches, depression, and exhaustion. Many turn to caffeine to try to keep awake, which only makes it more difficult for them to get to sleep when they get off of work. The result is chronic sleep deprivation, as well as a predictable increase in the number of accidents that occur on the job.
Workplace accidents are far more likely to happen on the night shift, and scientists conducting studies on shift workers have found that night shift workers often fell asleep on the job without even realizing that they had done so. Depending upon the type of work that is being done, dozing off can lead to tragic results, particularly for those who are operating heavy machinery or driving while sleep deprived. Over thirty percent of trucking accidents involve lack of sleep, and some of the most notable disasters in history have been attributed to sleep deprivation, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
If you are required to work the night shift, there are several things that you can do to help yourself get a good night’s sleep and avoid the chaos that can come from sleep deprivation. These include:
- See if you can get your employer to agree to keeping you on the same shift for an extended period of time. Studies have shown that it takes the body over a week to adjust to an eight-hour shift in the sleep cycle, and during that adjustment period accidents can happen and insomnia and depression can set in. The more consistent your schedule is the more likely the chances that you will be able to accommodate and adjust.
- If you know that you are going to have to switch to another shift, try to prepare your body ahead of time. Shifting your sleep schedule by as little as half an hour per day, both in terms of your waking time and the time you go to bed, can make a very big difference, and is how astronauts and pilots prepare their bodies for the impact of jetlag.
- Purchase room-darkening shades for your room and do everything you can to minimize light and noise in your room while you are sleeping. Likewise, try to work under the brightest lights possible so that you can fool your body into thinking that it is daytime.
- Try to stay away from alcohol and caffeine as well as any sleep aids or stimulants. Because shift work is so challenging, it is easy to become reliant on these artificial aids and dependencies can develop.
- Do whatever you can to optimize your health. Exercise, eat right and get as much rest as possible to avoid creating a toxic mix.
- Remember that you are likely to experience a period during your work shift when your body will try to shut down and you will not be doing your best work – and may end up in an unsafe situation. Keep track of when you’re feeling most tired and try to get some fresh air or in some other way perk yourself up during these critical times. Naps can be helpful also.
- Make sure that your family and friends are aware of your schedule so that they can be courteous and thoughtful about phone calls, visits and invitations.
If you are a hospital worker or physician who does not do shift work in the classic sense of the word but instead is “on call”, it is important that you are aware of your special sleep needs. In most cases, people who are on call are able to sleep on the job until they are needed – in some cases they are able to sleep at home but always have to be available in an emergency. Because these workers are aware that they could be awakened at any minute, their sleep is never relaxed, and therefore they rarely get the deep sleep that they need. Those who do get into deep sleep but who are awakened suddenly find themselves disoriented, yet required to make quick and important decisions. For these workers, or anybody else who finds themselves sleeping “with one eye open”, it is important that you never forget that you are not operating at top form. Stop