Doctors' Notes

No Doze: Is Shift Work Dangerous?

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Welcome to Doctors’ Notes, our newest contribution from Urban Health correspondents and husband and wife physicians Dr. Rob and Dr. Karla Robinson.  The dynamic duo will be fielding questions about health, as it relates to African Americans.  Please feel free to send them questions via digitalpitches@ebony.comWe promise to keep it anonymous. 


In light of the alleged sleep deprived condition of the trucker that led to the recent tragic car accident that fatally injured one, and left comedian Tracy Morgan and others in critical condition, it’s important to think about the dangers associated with shift-work.  Given the fact that over 3 million people work the traditional graveyard shift and another 4 million work evening shifts (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), being sleepy at work is something that many of us can relate to.

In fact, life threatening errors, accidents, and injuries have long been known to be caused by “sleepy workers” who work in industries requiring nighttime work.  Many of these industries-including health care, airline, and trucking have all responded by reducing mandatory work hours and placing limitations on the number of consecutive hours worked.  However, we still see unfortunate accidents occurring at the hands of “sleepy workers”.

If you have ever felt it difficult to maintain a nighttime work schedule, you are not alone.  Truth be told, there is actually a diagnosable medical condition known as Shift Work Sleep Disorder, and it is characterized by alternating cycles of severe insomnia and extreme sleepiness.  The often unnerving “microsleep” experienced when briefly falling asleep at a stop light or stop sign- even if just for a few seconds- is often a common symptom.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts most research shows that our bodies never fully adapt to shift work.  That being said, many of us are forced to work the night shift and have to find a way to perform effectively, efficiently, and safely.

Here are some tips that may help you to stay alert longer when working the nightshift:

Don’t leave the most tedious or boring tasks to the end of your shift when you are more likely to feel the drowsiest. Research shows that night shift workers tend to be most sleepy around 3 a.m.-5 a.m.

Take short nap breaks throughout the shift.  This is obviously dependent upon your line of work, but if possible power naps can have a huge impact during your shift.

Work with others to help keep you alert.  Make it a team effort and come up with creative ways to keep things interesting and engaging.

Try to be active during breaks.  Try taking a power walk or exercising when you have scheduled breaks.

Drink a caffeinated beverage (coffee, tea, colas) to help maintain alertness during your shift.


Coffee cup and beans

Credit: Thinkstock

Here are a few tips you can use to cope and maximize your sleep during the day:

Keep the same bedtime and wake time schedule, even on weekends.  Even though the temptation is there is sleep in when you can, avoid the urge.

Eliminate noise and light from your sleep environment. When possible try to use eye masks and ear plugs to reproduce the “nighttime” sleep environment when sleeping during the day.

Avoid caffeinated beverages and foods close to bedtime.  This will often disrupt and delay sleep onset, leading to further sleep deprivation.

Avoid alcohol.  Although it may seem to improve sleep initially, tolerance develops quickly and it will soon disturb sleep.


It’s a health thing…we’ve got to understand!

About the Doctors:

Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall, a multimedia health and wellness resource, and also hosts of the Urban Housecall Radio Show.  For more from the doctors, visit their website at, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!