What Is Shift Work Disorder?


Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a medical condition affecting people who work non-traditional hours. Irregular work schedules interfere with the body’s internal “clock,” disrupting the normal sleep-wake cycle.

Without enough deep sleep, a person is more prone to accidents, mood disorders, and a range of health problems. Keep reading to learn more about this often-misunderstood medical issue and the connection between fatigue and workplace accidents and injuries.

Circadian Rhythms: Our Bodies’ Natural Patterns

Circadian rhythms are behavioral, mental, and physical patterns that occur during a 24-hour cycle. They are the ways in which our bodies respond to light and darkness. Most living things including plants, insects, and most animals have circadian rhythms.

Certain genes in the human body contain code for proteins that activate common feelings like alertness and drowsiness. Environmental signals like exposure to sunlight can trigger the release of these proteins at predictable times throughout the course of a day. In humans, the most basic example of a light-related circadian rhythm is being awake during the day and sleeping at night when it is dark outside.

Shift Work Disrupts the Body’s Natural Clock

Estimates are nearly one in five wage and salary workers in the United States has a shift work schedule. That is loosely defined as any work shift that falls outside of the hours of 6:00AM and 7:00PM.

Shift work disrupts the human circadian rhythms that regulate (among other processes) the body’s ability to “entrain” or reset every 24 hours based on cycles of light and darkness. For that reason, SWSD is categorized as a “circadian rhythm sleep disorder.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder Symptoms and Complications

Shift work sleep disorder and other circadian rhythm disorder symptoms and severity vary from person to person, but there are some commonalities.

SWSD symptoms and complications may include:

  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse or dependency
  • Cardiovascular, metabolic, and gastrointestinal problems
  • Chronic or recurring sleep disturbances
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and other mood problems
  • Low testosterone

Someone with SWSD can experience mental, physical, educational, occupational, or social impairments that impact their overall quality of life and ability to go to school, hold a job, or enjoy healthy relationships with others.

SWSD Workplace Accidents and Injuries

Shift work and the disruption of the natural sleep-wake cycle reduces reaction-time, decision-making, and attentiveness, increasing the risk of mistakes or oversights that can lead to accidents at home or work.

If you are not awake and alert on the job, you can potentially become a danger to you and those around you. A person with SWSD may be more likely to cause a motor vehicle crash or any type of accident involving dangerous equipment or machinery.

Tips to Prevent or Reduce Impact of Shift Work Sleep Disorder

The reality is that not all workers clock out at 5:00PM. Shift work is essential in many cases. Healthcare workers, law enforcement officials, truck drivers are just some of the many professions who require shift work.

If you are a shift worker, you can take steps to get more sleep and combat the effects of shift work on your health and well-being.

  1. Make Sleep a Priority

It is vital for adults to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every day. When you are not working, try to get some sleep, even if it is daytime. Ask your roommates and/or family to avoid noisy activities while you are sleeping. They can wear headphones while listening to music or the television.

Implement a “sleep routine” to prepare for sleep mentally and physically—regardless of the time of day. That can be putting your phone on sleep mode, hanging a “do not disturb” sign on the door, and turning on a white noise machine to drown out outside sounds. You can use blackout curtains, earplugs, and a sleep mask to create a calm, peaceful, dark environment that is ideal for sleep.

2. Avoid Extra Shifts and Overtime

Be sure to take some time off after working multiple night shifts in a row. If you are working irregular hours, avoid prolonged shifts and excess overtime hours. You need breaks to rest and recharge every week.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends that shift workers who work 12-hour shifts should not work more than four consecutive days in a row. Individuals who work the night shift should stick to five shifts or less, with days off scheduled in between. Even if you work odd hours, try to maintain as much of a routine as possible.

3. Be a Cautious Driver

Drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. Like alcohol, drugs, and certain medications, fatigue affects impulse control, decision-making, reaction time, and coordination. If you feel too tired to drive home after a shift, call a rideshare service or ask someone for a ride. Long commutes can also be physically and mentally taxing. Avoid leaving at rush hour and choose the least congested route home.

What to Do After a Work Accident Caused by Shift Work Disorder?

If you were injured in an accident at work due to shift work disorder or other job site conditions, you may be entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits. Medical bills, lost income, and other costs may be covered under Delaware Workers’ Compensation law.

After a workplace accident, your first step should be to report the incident to your employer. Document the accident location and collect any evidence related to your claim. That includes photos of the job site, medical reports, and witness accounts from anyone at the scene.

For a serious injury, call 911 for immediate assistance. Otherwise, wait until you are stable and seek prompt medical attention. Next, contact a Workers’ Compensation lawyer to assess your case and recommend the next best step to pursue benefits. Your attorney can help you file a Workers’ Compensation claim, appeal a denied claim, or pursue litigation if necessary.

Wilmington Workers’ Compensation Lawyers With Rhoades & Morrow Protect the Rights of Injured Workers Across the State

Shift work is mentally and physically demanding. And over time, disrupted sleep patterns can lead to careless mistakes at work. If you or someone you care about was hurt on the job, regardless of who is at fault, contact Wilmington Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Rhoades & Morrow. We explore all available legal options to achieve a good outcome for your case. Call (302) 427-9500 or contact the firm online to schedule a free consultation in any of our convenient locations. With offices in all three counties of Delaware, we service clients throughout the state.


Delaware Injury Lawyers

R & M Lawyers
Rhoades & Morrow

Our attorneys provide exceptional legal service with a personal touch. Since our founding in 1990, we have helped thousands of Delaware citizens obtain full and just compensation for personal injury claims. We have gained an excellent reputation as the “go to” law firm. Let us put our decades of experience to work for you.

Skip to content