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More than half of night shift workers have a sleep disorder

Sleep, a vital component of our daily lives, is crucial for maintaining optimal neurocognitive functioning and health. However, for a significant portion of the workforce, particularly shift workers, maintaining a regular sleep pattern is a challenge. 

In the European Union, a notable 21% of workers in 2015 were engaged in shift work, leading to a disruption in their circadian sleep-wake rhythms. A recent study conducted in the Netherlands sheds light on this critical issue.

Disordered sleep 

The research, led by Dr. Marike Lancel from GGZ Drenthe’s Mental Health Institute, delves into the complex relationship between different shift work patterns, sociodemographic factors, and sleep disorders. 

“We showed that compared to working regular shifts during daytime hours, working other shift types is associated with a higher occurrence of disordered sleep, particularly in rotating and regular night shift work,” said Dr. Lancel. “Of note, 51% of people working nights scored positive for at least one sleep disorder.”

“There is a lot of evidence that shift work reduces the quality of sleep. However, little is known about the influence of different types of shifts on the prevalence of various sleep disorders, and how this may vary depending on demographic characteristics.”

Focus of the study

The comprehensive research involved over 37,000 participants who provided detailed information about their shift work patterns and demographic data. 

A pivotal part of the study was a questionnaire designed to screen for six common sleep disorder categories: insomnia, hypersomnia, parasomnia, sleep-related breathing disorders, sleep-related movement disorders, and circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders.

Shocking results

The responses indicated that regular night shift work was particularly detrimental to sleep health. 

Notably, half of the night shift workers reported sleeping less than six hours within a 24-hour period, with 51% indicating at least one sleep disorder and 26% reporting two or more.

Demographic variables

A unique aspect of the study was its focus on demographic variables such as sex, age, education level, and living situations. 

The findings showed gender-specific differences, with men sleeping fewer hours but women more prone to sleep disorders. Age was another crucial factor, influencing not just sleep duration but also the prevalence of sleep disorders, especially among younger participants aged 30 and below.

Educational divide

The study revealed a significant correlation between education level and sleep health. “The effects of shift work on sleep are most prominent in young adults with a lower education,” said Dr. Lancel.

This group not only slept fewer hours but also had a higher prevalence of sleep disorders and their comorbidities.

Night shift

While some individuals may adapt better to night shifts, the study suggests that the average night shift worker is likely to face significant challenges in maintaining regular, healthy sleep patterns.

“Because those working night shift will remain de-synchronized with the day-work focused environment they live in, it is unlikely to completely prevent all negative consequences of night work,” explained Dr. Lancel.

Study implications 

Despite certain limitations, such as a potential bias in the participant pool, the study offers crucial insights for employers in sectors where shift work is prevalent. 

The research provides a foundation for developing targeted interventions and policies to improve the well-being of shift workers, ultimately enhancing their quality of life and productivity.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

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