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Taking Meds to Work Night Shift May Do More Harm than Good

Taking Meds to Work Night Shift May Do More Harm than Good

Nearly 15 million Americans work the night shift and many struggle with the assignment experiencing restlessness, sleepiness on the job, fatigue, decreased attention, and disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm.

As a result, many workers take drugs to help them stay awake or get to sleep despite weak evidence for their benefit.

This is the finding of researchers from a review of studies ascertaining the effectiveness of the medications.

Investigators found only small numbers of trials testing over-the-counter and prescription drugs used by shift workers, and the results suggest that for some people they might do more harm than good.

In most developed countries, at least 10 percent of the workforce is involved in some form of shift work.

European statistics suggest that as many as three quarters of the population have ‘non-standard’ working hours.

Experts are aware that disturbances to normal sleeping and waking patterns increase the risk of accidents and affect shift workers’ health.

As such, investigators advise the avoidance of shift work where possible and, if shift work is absolutely necessary, to improve shift work schedules to help shift workers achieve more normal sleeping and waking patterns.

In jobs where shift work cannot be avoided, such as health care, the police force or the military, drugs can potentially offer short-term benefits.

The review included 15 trials involving a total of 718 people.

In nine trials, the over-the- counter hormone drug melatonin helped shift workers sleep for around 24 minutes longer during the night or day, compared to placebos.

However, it did not help them get to sleep any quicker.

Data from only one trial of the hypnotic drug zoplicone was available. The drug was no more effective than placebos for helping shift workers sleep during the day.

The remaining trials focused on caffeine and two drugs, modafinil and armodafinil, that are prescribed for sleepiness during night shifts.

In one trial, caffeine reduced sleepiness during night shifts, when workers also napped before shifts.

Modafinil and armodafinil, used by shift workers in one and two trials respectively, increased alertness and reduced sleepiness.

However, they also caused headaches, nausea, and a rise in blood pressure in a substantial number of people. Due to the limited benefits and frequent side effects, neither of these drugs is approved for shift workers in Europe.

“For lots of people who do shift work, it would be really useful if they could take a pill that would help them go to sleep or stay awake at the right time,” said lead author of the review, Juha Liira, who is based at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, Finland.

“But from what we have seen in our review, there isn’t good evidence that these drugs can be considered for more than temporary use and some may have quite serious side effects.”

Most of the data reported in the review was from small, low quality trials.

In addition, trials tended to be carried out in specific settings, such as health care or oil rigs, so their results may be less relevant for workers in other types of roles.

“It’s curious that there’s such a clear gap in the research,” said Liira.

“It may well be that studying the effects of these drugs or others drugs in properly designed trials would be seen as unethical because workers should not need drugs to get along with their work.

“So the studies just haven’t been done or if they have, our review has not been able to identify relevant data.”

Source: Wiley

Taking Meds to Work Night Shift May Do More Harm than Good

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Taking Meds to Work Night Shift May Do More Harm than Good. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.