There's a Reason They Call It the Graveyard Shift

As we learn more about sleep disorders, there is one that has probably existed since the dawn of the Industrial Age; Shift Work Disorder.  It’s about time we discussed the damage that ignoring our own body rhythms has done in the last 100 years. 

The graveyard shift was named because of work being done during the quietest and “deadest” part of the evening, but any shift work that causes you to go to work when it’s dark and sleep when it’s light is going to affect your sleep quality and quantity.  This has a ripple effect on your physical and mental health.  It can even lead to an early grave!

According to the Sleep Foundation, the symptoms of shift work disorder include:

night shift worker who may have sleep disorder
  • Excessive sleepiness when you need to be awake, alert, and productive.
  • Insomnia, or the inability to sleep when you need to. This can mean trouble falling asleep or waking up before you’ve slept enough.
  • Sleep that feels unrefreshing or insufficient
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability or depression
  • Difficulty with personal relationships

Most people who work shifts will experience some difficulty with these symptoms—like waking up after fewer than 7-9 hours of sleep or feeling drowsy while on the job. For people with shift work disorder, however, this is an ongoing problem that may start to interfere with work or family life.

Grumpy Graveyard
My dad worked the graveyard shift for years.  We referred to it as “grumpy graveyard” for good reason.  Partly because we knew he hated shift work, but also because we knew what a toll it took on him physically and mentally due to the disruption in his internal clock (your circadian rhythm).  Fortunately, my mom was a nurse and did everything she knew how to help my dad get good sleep during the day.

  • Turn Out the Lights
    She eliminated all sources of light from the room by blocking the windows with cardboard!  Funny looking, yes, but it worked!  Light blocking curtains probably work just as well, but she wasn’t taking any chances. 
  • The Sound of Silence
    She attempted to eliminate sources of sound, but with three kids in the house, it wasn’t always easy!  We did our best to keep quiet when we knew Dad was sleeping.  It helped that the master bedroom was on the other side of the house.
  • Stay Active
    My dad was an active person in general, so that didn’t stop between shifts.  He found time to get some heart pumping exercise at least a couple days per week.  This helped his overall health and minimized the effects of shift work on his sleep patterns.
  • Eat Light
    Whatever my dad took to work for dinner was something healthy and not heavy and greasy.  This not only helped him get through the night without feeling sleepy but helped him get better sleep once he did get home.
  • Limit Caffeine
    This is the one thing my dad had a tough time doing.  He probably had enough caffeine at night to keep a small animal awake for days.  Fortunately, the other steps he took to prevent the effects of shift work disorder did a pretty good job of keeping him healthy over the years.
sleep disorders like insomnia or daytime sleepiness frequently affect shift workers

If you or a loved one works night shift, make sure you pay attention to any of the symptoms of shift work disorder that may appear and make changes to your lifestyle and sleep habits to ensure you don’t suffer from the effects of this common sleep disorder.  Talk to your doctor and then see a sleep specialist for help in diagnosing and treating your sleep issues so you can sleep better and live healthier!