Finding a rhythm with sleep and shift work

How well you’re sleeping is a safety issue – especially if you’re shift worker.

Shift workers regularly go against their body’s programming to function each day and are at risk of developing disordered sleep or shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).

The World Health Organisation has classified any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, because of a disruption of your sleep-wake rhythms.

The Australasian Sleep Association describes SWSD as consisting of symptoms of insomnia or excessive sleepiness that occur as transient phenomena in relation to work schedules.

It is estimated 1 in 10 shift workers in Australia experience SWSD.

Moreover, the side-effects of sleep deficit are not localised to a single industry or demographic.

A non-standard work schedule (working outside the hours of 9am to 6pm) is characteristic of some professions like nursing, policing, oil rig work and airline workers.

Industries where these schedules are prevalent include health care, road and rail transport, aviation, hospitality, and mining.

Contributing factors to sleep issues for shift workers include:

  • Rotating day and night rosters
  • Night shift work
  • Early morning or afternoon starts (which clash with the usual time for sleep)

Other additional factors which may contribute to poorer sleep and reduced wellbeing:

  • Precarious or unpredictable employment
  • On-call or standby conditions
  • Long work hours or overtime

Sleep and safety

Managing fatigue is a key workplace safety issue.

When a person’s work shifts conflict with their internal sleep rhythm, it makes it difficult to stay focused and awake.

In 2018, the Australian Federal Government began an inquiry into a 'looming sleep crisis'.

The inquiry investigated how a lack of sleep is affecting the mood, health, and safety of Australians.

At the 2019 Parliamentary hearing, CEO of SleepFit Melissa Webster described the impact of sleep issues at work:

“Inadequate sleep has been associated with impaired performance in the workplace, primarily through reduced productivity while at work and increased absenteeism.”

There’s their commute to consider – if a worker is behind the wheel while sleepy, it presents a wider safety risk to the wider community.

In a submission to the Sleep Health Awareness in Australia Inquiry in October 2018, CEO of the Centre for

Alertness, Safety and Productivity cites the impacts of sleeplessness in the workplace:

  • Up to a 50% increased risk of occupational injury, absenteeism and error or safety violation.
  • An estimated 20% of serious car crash injuries and 30% of fatal crashes are attributed to impaired alertness. This makes it the largest identifiable and preventable cause of transport accidents.

Quality sleep matters

“There is lots of research and evidence to support the relationship between sleep and health” Colleen Zubrzycki, National Operational Excellence Lead for Generation Health says.

Not just to maintain alertness, but also to lower the risk of chronic disease, cancer, heart disease, stroke, metabolic issues, and type 2 diabetes, according to Reynolds et al.

According to Colleen, “Any disruption to our sleep over a prolonged period will impact our mental health and physical recovery.

“One study by Matthew Walker identified that sleep restriction of 4 hours per night dropped natural killer cell activity by 70%, which is concerning in relation to immune system function.

“There are two essential kinds of sleep: non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). NREM sleep can help us physically heal, whilst REM sleep is important as it stimulates areas of our brains that are essential in learning and memory creation and retention.”

Creating good habits – also known as sleep hygiene - around sleep, are therefore critical to enhancing your sleep, health, and wellbeing.

Tips for better quality sleep

The only cure for fatigue is adequate good quality sleep.

If you’re wanting to improve your quality and quantity of sleep, Senior Psychology lecturer Dr Melinda Jackson recommends:

  • Keep a regular bedtime and wake time each day – even on weekends. Routine is key.
  • Limit your screen time – give yourself a one hour “no tech” buffer before bed.
  • Take care of your body – keep up daily exercise and avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid.
  • Take care of your mind – try to resolve any issues long in advance of bedtime. If you are still feeling anxious or worried at bedtime, try some gentle stretching, yoga, or mindfulness.
  • Keep your bedroom reserved for sleep – as much as possible avoid working, watching TV, or using your laptop in your bedroom.
  • If you wake up during the night and can’t fall back asleep, get up and do something relaxing in dim light until you feel sleepy again.

Staying awake (safely) at work

  • Consume caffeine in moderation
  • Get moving for five minutes to boost your mood
  • Take a short 10-20 minute nap
  • Exercise caution while working
  • If possible, consider a post-work nap before you drive home

Ways for leaders to support good sleep

The Sleep Foundation offers the following recommendations for workplaces looking to improve the safety and wellbeing of their workers:


With rotating rosters or shifts can consider the following rotating schedules:

  • Dupont – a four-week cycle of four different teams covering 12-hour shifts.
  • Panama – also known as two-two-three or the pitman - four teams, with two covering day shifts during the week for two-to-three-day blocks and the other two covering the night shift in the same fashion.
  • Southern swing – Employees work eight hours per shift for seven consecutive days, with two to three days off.

Proactive prevention

Shift workers are less likely to sleep as well as people who work set hours during the day.

The Sleep Foundation Australia offer a range of proactive measures for businesses to support better sleep for their employees:

  • Avoid glorifying sleep loss or sleeplessness at work
  • Avoid scheduling back-to-back shifts, consistency helps the body adapt better
  • When shifts do rotate, rotate them forwards – morning to afternoon, evening to night
  • Schedule nap breaks for night shift workers
  • Offer transport home, shuttle services or transport reimbursements for sleep deprived workers
  • If you have employees who travel, avoid overnight commutes such as ‘red eye’ flights
  • Looking into training for supervisors in sleep and fatigue management