Sleep loss and circadian disruption in shift work: health burden and management

Med J Aust. 2013 Oct 21;199(8):S11-5. doi: 10.5694/mja13.10561.


About 1.5 million Australians are shift workers. Shift work is associated with adverse health, safety and performance outcomes. Circadian rhythm misalignment, inadequate and poor-quality sleep, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea, insomnia and shift work disorder (excessive sleepiness and/or insomnia temporally associated with the work schedule) contribute to these associations. Falling asleep at work at least once a week occurs in 32%-36% of shift workers. Risk of occupational accidents is at least 60% higher for non-day shift workers. Shift workers also have higher rates of cardiometabolic diseases and mood disturbances. Road and workplace accidents related to excessive sleepiness, to which shift work is a significant contributor, are estimated to cost $71-$93 billion per annum in the United States. There is growing evidence that understanding the interindividual variability in sleep-wake responses to shift work will help detect and manage workers vulnerable to the health consequences of shift work. A range of approaches can be used to enhance alertness in shift workers, including screening and treating sleep disorders, melatonin treatment to promote sleep during the daytime, and avoidance of inappropriate use of sedatives and wakefulness-promoters such as modafinil and caffeine. Short naps, which minimise sleep inertia, are generally effective. Shifting the circadian pacemaker with appropriately timed melatonin and/or bright light may be used to facilitate adjustment to a shift work schedule in some situations, such as a long sequence of night work. It is important to manage the health risk of shift workers by minimising vascular risk factors through dietary and other lifestyle approaches.

MeSH terms

  • Accidents, Occupational / economics
  • Accidents, Occupational / prevention & control
  • Accidents, Occupational / psychology
  • Accidents, Occupational / statistics & numerical data
  • Accidents, Traffic / economics
  • Accidents, Traffic / prevention & control
  • Accidents, Traffic / psychology
  • Accidents, Traffic / statistics & numerical data
  • Australia
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Disorders of Excessive Somnolence / epidemiology
  • Disorders of Excessive Somnolence / psychology
  • Disorders of Excessive Somnolence / therapy
  • Health Care Costs / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / epidemiology*
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / psychology
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / therapy
  • Work Schedule Tolerance*