Understanding how sleep loss affects young shift workers

Associate Professor Amy Reynolds. Photo: Alexander Robertson

Increasing awareness about sleep disorders affecting people of all ages is opening a gateway to advanced sleep health, with Flinders University researchers finding new ways to diagnose and manage sleep problems.

“Poor sleep affects people’s health in so many ways, and in recent years we have learned just how common some sleep disorders are,” says Associate Professor Amy Reynolds, Co-Lead of the Insomnia, Shift Work and Body Clock Disruption team at Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute Sleep Health (FHMRI, formerly Adelaide Institute of Sleep Health). “20 per cent of young people have a sleep disorder that needs treatment – and this figure doubles by the time people reach middle age.”

“My research is particularly interested in the ways that work, sleep and health interact, and I’m currently doing work with young shift workers who have sleep problems and are impacted by sleeping out of sync with their body clocks.”

A trial conducted through 2022, funded by the Flinders Foundation, aimed to identify and diagnose the types of sleep disorders being suffered by young Paramedicine students before they had to start doing shift work, as a way of identifying clinical sleep disorders that could be treated early.

“Both of my parents worked as volunteer paramedics, and mum was a nurse; I grew up listening to their stories about the difficulties of trying to get enough sleep when they did shift work. It sparked an interest that I’ve been able to carry through into focused research,” says Associate Professor Reynolds.

“Last year we found that if young adults have a sleep disorder and they also work night shifts, their mental health is much more impacted than those without this combination of influencing factors. It’s a significant concern for the individuals, but also amounts to lost productivity through absenteeism due to sleep disorders in our workplaces.”

Associate Professor Reynolds recently delivered a report to SafeWork SA about the experiences of fatigue and sleep disorders among paramedics, which highlights there is much work to be done educating and providing options for the management of sleep in shift workers.

“If we get onboard early in a person’s working life to identify sleep disorders, we could make changes that will have a big bearing on their lives,” she says. “We need to be raising awareness and supporting sleep from early adulthood.

“It all points to a real need to reduce the stigma that surrounds sleep disorders, and show young adults that getting treatment early could provide huge benefits for their health and safety.”

Associate Professor Reynolds’ work forms an important plank within the broader sleep health research program at Flinders University, unlocking a complex puzzle to identify and then combat sleep disorders. “I’m one piece of a big, awesome, multi-disciplinary team,” she says, “and our particular areas of interest and expertise have overlap, so our shared insights are forming a more complete picture about sleep health.”

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