Sleep doesn’t just feel good—it’s a vitally important part of your health. People who consistently don’t get seven or more hours of shuteye are more at risk for obesity, heart disease, depression, diabetes, and more. But sometimes, long hours at work make it seem impossible to get a decent night’s rest.
The CDC analyzed how many working adults failed to get at least seven hours of sleep in different jobs. They used self-reported data from 179,621 adults to find out which positions were most (and least) likely to get enough sleep.
After adjusting for age, sex, marital status, and education level, the survey found communications equipment operators had the worst jobs for sleep, with 58 percent saying they didn’t get at least seven hours per day. Right behind them were other transportation workers (54 percent) and rail transportation workers (53 percent).
On the flip side, air transportation workers got enough sleep most often, with just 21 percent saying they didn’t get at least seven hours. Meanwhile, only about 22 percent of religious workers, and first-line supervisors/managers and protective service workers said they didn’t sleep enough.
Surprised that air transportation jobs were the best for sleep, while rail and other transportation positions were among the worst? The Federal Aviation Administration protects pilots, limiting them to flying just eight or nine hours at a time. Pilots also need at least ten hours between shifts, with a realistic opportunity for at least eight hours of sleep. So an hour and a half commute should factor into how much time off they have.
Most of the jobs worst for sleep happened to be shift work, which could mean trouble sleeping when trying to switch “time zone” for a work shifts, says Michael Breus, PhD, clinical sleep specialist and author of The Power of When. The condition is common enough to have its own name: shift work disorder.
Jobs with inconsistent hours or graveyard shifts throw off workers’ internal clocks. “The body can never really understand when it is supposed to be sleeping,” says says W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Clinic and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. After working a midday shift and then switching to a graveyard shift, for instance, employees might have trouble falling asleep, then feel exhausted on the job.
And shift work doesn’t have to mean late-night hours, either. It could mean working an 11-hour day, having an inconsistent schedule, or even getting a graveyard shift every other week, says Dr. Winter.
It’s not just the time clocked in that’s taxing. A commute could mean even longer hours committed to work, says Dr. Winter. “One of the worst patients I’ve seen is a train conductor,” he says. “Trains don’t leave from every city, so he had to travel to another city.” More time traveling means less time available for sleep.
Plus, graveyard shift workers often force themselves awake earlier on their days off, which actually makes things worse when they do go back to work. “They are trying to sleep when everyone else that matters in their lives is awake, so often they will ‘switch’ on their days off, and this can make sleep really tough,” says Dr. Breus.
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On the other hand, jobs like religious workers, protective service workers, and teachers might have more consistent hours. “All seem to have a definite ‘end’ to their day,” says Dr. Breus. Other than teachers, who need to bring grading home with them, most positions with the best sleep habits probably don’t need to bring paperwork home for more late-night hours, says Dr. Winter.
Even if you do need work night shifts, sticking with a consistently late schedule is actually better than taking irregular graveyard shifts, says Dr. Winter. If your job doesn’t allow the same hours every day, encourage your employer to build schedules that get gradually later through the week. “It’s a lot easier for us to push a little later than to go to bed earlier,” says Dr. Winter. You’ll find it easier to fall asleep before work, so you’ll be more alert on the job.
If all else fails and you can’t get a solid seven or more hours of sleep a night, ask your doctor about shift work disorder medications. The FDA-approved drugs will keep you from dozing off on the job. “You have a better shift and can make it home without hurting yourself,” says Dr. Winter. “Because you’re not nodding off [on the job], at home it’s easier to sleep.”