Shift Work Got You Feeling Sleepy?

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swsdAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of the 15 million Americans classified as shift workers suffer from a condition known as shift work sleep disorder, or SWSD. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that at least 10 percent of all companies in this country operate around the clock, creating a large pool of people who are susceptible to this snoozy sleep problem.

Shift workers are generally thought of as those people who work between the hours of 10PM and 8AM, or the time frame when most people are sleeping. Think doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, transportation personnel and some manual laborers. By working at night when it is dark out and sleeping during the daylight hours, you effectively disrupt your body's natural circadian rhythms. In short, you completely screw up your body's internal clock and trick it into sleeping at the wrong times, much like a newborn baby who wakes and naps so frequently that he often gets his days and nights confused.

Side effects on your body can include lack of concentration, sleepiness, decreased immune function, increased blood pressure, headaches, weight gain and gastrointestinal problems. These results can add up quickly and lead to decreased workplace performance, accidents, negligence and poor judgment on the job.


Could caffeine be the key?

A recent study conducted by Cochrane researchers and published at www.eurekalert.org has found that "caffeine can help those working shifts or nights to make fewer errors."

L.C., a surgical nurse at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C, says that she often drinks ROCKSTAR, a highly caffeinated orange soda, in the late afternoon to give her a boost to get through her paperwork and carry her until the end of her shift. "I get up at 5AM and am at work by 7AM. Some days I barely get to stop and pee much less eat or hydrate. By 4 o'clock I am so tired from being on my feet all day I sometimes think I may not make it until the end of my 12-hour shift at 7PM. I drink a ROCKSTAR, and it is amazing how much I get done."

According to the Cochrane study, "the researchers reviewed data from 13 trials studying the effects of caffeine on performance in shift workers, mostly in simulated working conditions. Caffeine was given in coffee, pills, energy drinks or caffeinated food. In some trials, performance was assessed by tasks such as driving, whereas in others it was assessed by neuropsychological tests. Caffeine appeared to reduce errors compared to placebos or naps, and improve performance in various neuropsychological tests, including those focusing on memory, attention, perception and concept formation and reasoning."


Shift workers like their caffeine

"I live a caffeine-infused life" said one New York City mom who has been chasing the sleep dragon for years. Mothers, especially those who work and or stay home with small children, consider caffeine as some kind to be a mandatory food group. "I don't drink coffee because I hate the bitter taste, but I do drink Diet Coke and green tea all day long, and especially late at night if I am up and working on a freelance project when my kid is asleep," said one Virginia mother.

While the disruptive effects of shift work are case-specific to each individual (age, lifestyle, health etc. also play a role in your sleep cycle), it is promising to see that something may help reduce human error in the workplace due to sleepiness. I mean, who wants to get on the plane to fly cross country when the pilot has SWSD, and who feels safe in an emergency room when you know the nurse or resident doctor has been working non-stop for 18 hours?

If caffeine is king and the key to safer, more productive workplaces and fewer workers suffering from SWSD, then so be it. Maybe implementing coffee breaks years ago was not such a bad idea after all.

Next: Working the Night Shift: What a Way to Make a Living! >>


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