What actually is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
Shift Work Sleep Disorder is believed to affect between 10-40% of shift workers, though it is difficult to be exact as many people who have it do not even realise it exists. Here at VetShift we surveyed our Facebook community, which consists primarily of veterinary shift workers and their managers, and a shocking 92% of this population had never even heard of this condition! How difficult must it be to seek help for a condition if neither you nor your employer have actually heard of it, let alone understand it? I can tell you from experience that is it virtually impossible. I know this because since researching the topic I have started to realise that I was likely suffering from SWSD for most of the last two years of my career as an out-of-hours emergency vet. I still love emergency and critical care veterinary work passionately, but night shifts were having a detrimental effect on my mind, my body, and my personal and professional relationships, eventually leading to extreme burnout and the decision to stop working permanent night shifts.
This is not a unique story, and one of our key goals is to prevent others from suffering to this extent as a result of their working patterns. We believe that education is key to this. Some individuals do cope better with shift work naturally, some may need some extra support, tools and adjustments to manage their shift patterns, and others are simply not suited to it at all. We believe it is imperative that workers and employers are aware of the symptoms of SWSD, so that help and support can be provided long before the point of burnout, and so that workers can make an informed decision as to whether this type of work is suitable for them.
So, what actually is Shift Work Sleep Disorder? SWSD is a chronic circadian rhythm sleep disorder due to working shift patterns that are out of sync with your natural body clock, which results in an inability to fall asleep when you need to and a difficulty in staying awake and concentrating when you are supposed to. But of course, that just sounds like a normal night shift, right?! Not quite, as not all people who work shifts suffer from SWSD. Almost everyone will feel these symptoms initially when adjusting to a new shift pattern, but many can then adapt quite well, and although they will still be fighting somewhat against their body clock, they are able to sleep fairly well in the day and manage their work productively at night, while maintaining a good quality of life.
Those with SWSD really struggle to adapt, and if the signs persist for more than 2-3 months of the shift pattern then it may be that the person is suffering from SWSD. One of the main symptoms of SWSD is that it starts to affect your personal and professional life, with increased risk of irritability and depression, difficulty in maintaining relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and marked reduction in concentration, often leading to an increased rate of accidents and mistakes at home, at work and on the roads. This can have awful, even fatal, consequences. SWSD does often resolve if the shift pattern stops, but not always, and some are left with the residual effects of SWSD long after they stop working shifts.
Many people prone to or suffering with SWSD will want or need to keep working night shifts, and this can be achieved as long as appropriate support and treatment is in place. The main form of treatment is improving the individual's sleep hygiene, which will be the focus of a future blog post. Other treatments include light therapy and appropriate use of caffeine. There are medical treatments including prescribed melatonin and other sleeping pills, and research is underway for the use of a stimulant drug called modafinil for treatment of this disorder. These medications should of course only be used under instruction and supervision of a doctor. If you think that you may be suffering with any of the symptoms described in this article, please contact your GP to discuss it further.
We hope that this has provided a good overview of Shift Work Sleep Disorder, and encouraged you to start conversations about this at work to alert anyone who may be suffering. Many people, myself included, often accept these symptoms as being a 'normal' part of being a shift worker, but it is important to recognise that if these symptoms are long-standing or affecting your health, wellbeing, safety, relationships or ability to perform your work then this may indicate SWSD, and we would encourage you to seek help and support.