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What is SWSD and why is it dangerous?

Whether you work in an emergency room, hotel, call center or any number of other workplaces that require round-the-clock staffing, if you are assigned the overnight shift, you may be dealing with a sleep disorder. In fact, if your hours are the cause of your sleep disorder, there’s a term for it: shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).

People who suffer from SWSD, which can make it difficult to fall asleep when they need to and cause sleepiness and fatigue when they need to be alert, are experiencing a disruption in their circadian rhythm. This is the body’s natural “clock,” largely impacted by light and dark, that tells a person when they should be awake and when they should prepare for sleep.

This disruption can impact a person’s physical and mental ability. One doctor says that when she gets home from working a night shift, she has difficulty making even minor decisions, like what she should eat or drink. She says her husband calls it “decision fatigue.”

People with SWSD are more likely to have accidents, both at work and while driving. There are ways to combat the effects of SWSD and help minimize the risk of suffering harm in (or out of) the workplace.

An emergency medicine website recommends creating an environment where you can sleep during the day. Let family and friends know that you should not be disturbed. Make sure that the room where you’re sleeping is dark. Invest in some blackout shades if you need to.

If you can avoid it, don’t bounce from night shift to day shift and back. Try to schedule night shifts for a period so that your body can adjust to it.

Your employer as well as your fellow night shift workers likely have some suggestions for combating the negative effects of SWSD to help ensure everyone’s safety and well-being. However, if you are injured at work because of your own fatigue or someone else’s you can and should seek workers’ compensation benefits. These can help you get the medical care you need and support yourself and your family until you can get back to work.