Some shift workers take drugs to help them stay awake or get to sleep, however there is little evidence that this will actually benefit them, new research indicates.
According to Finnish researchers, at least one in 10 workers is involved in some sort of shift work in most developed countries and European figures suggest that as many as three in four workers have ‘non-standard' hours.
Where possible, shift work is best avoided as it can lead to an increase in the risk of accidents and affect workers' health. However, where it cannot be avoided, such as in healthcare, drugs are sometimes used to help people cope with the disturbances to their waking and sleeping patterns.
The researchers decided to investigate this further. They reviewed 15 trials involving over 700 people. They found that in some of the trials, the drugs taken did not help people get to sleep any quicker and only extended the length of sleep by just over 20 minutes.
In another trial, drugs were no more effective than placebos when it came to helping night-shift workers sleep during the day.
In other trials that looked at drugs aimed at keeping people awake during night shifts, the researchers found that while they did appear to increase alertness and reduce sleepiness, they also caused a number of side-effects such as nausea, headaches and an increase in blood pressure.
"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. 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," commented lead author of the review, Juha Liira, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki.
The researchers acknowledged that most of the studies carried out in this area were small and they described it as ‘curious that there's such a clear gap in the research'.
"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," they added.
Details of these findings are published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014.