By Michael Heffernan

Shiftwork and Sleep Disturbance

Shiftwork and Sleep Disturbance

Modern work practices such as night work, early morning shifts, rotating shifts, and long haul travel with jet lag can affect sleep patterns and lead to insomnia when one tries to sleep and sleepiness when one tries to work due to “sleep debt”. The changing pattern of sleep impacts the normal circadian rhythms of the body that regulates the sleep-wake cycle due to changes in the release of hormones such as cortisol and melatonin that usually stimulates alertness versus sleepiness. 

The risks involved damage to the worker and also to others around them. In a study of nurses, 600 of 895 reported having fallen asleep at the wheel at least once after a shift and a number having driven in a sleepy state after shift work. 

The health challenges from the disturbance of normal sleep patterns can include problems with mental health, poor work and home quality of life, harm to gastrointestinal, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems, and increased risk of substance abuse as people try and overcome the challenges of sleep or wakefulness. 

Approaches to deal with this are challenging as shift work is often enforced by the need for income from workplaces. Recommendations in an article from Japan included: “taking a short nap before or during night shifts, using bright light exposure and melatonin at appropriate times and using drugs such as Modafinil to stay awake as needed.” (1)

Employers need to be aware of the damaging consequences of sleep deprivation. Please speak to your doctor before taking any medication or if you have any concerns regarding sleep disturbance.

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All the best,

Dr. Mike Heffernan



1. Komada, Y., Asaoka, S., Abe, T., Inoue, Y., 2013. Short sleep duration, sleep disorders, and

traffic accidents. IATSS Res.