The Real Reason They Call it the Graveyard Shift…

I wanted to start this week with a real warm and fuzzy post about how grateful we are for our sleep technologists. We call them night techs. Each October, the American Association of Sleep Technologists celebrates Sleep Tech Week to recognize the technologists who play a vital role in sleep centers across the country.

Who performs overnight sleep studies?

That’s right… our Registered Polysomnographic Technologists… our sleep techs (or RPSGTs for short). These are the ladies and gents that perform sleep studies, for the young and old, sick and tired, seven nights a week almost 365 days a year. The tech who attaches all of the electrodes and tucks you in for a good night’s sleep at the sleep center.  

Our sleep techs work tirelessly making sure that our patients are comfortable, informed, and properly cared for during their overnight sleep studies. It’s a tough job. Many patients undergoing sleep studies are nervous, anxious, tired and not interested in spending the night in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar technician. But it’s an important job! After completing a sleep study and receiving treatment for a sleep disorder, many patients report that their lives are greatly improved

So that got me thinking: who’s taking care of the sleep techs? I have several questions:

  • What are the effects of working the Graveyard Shift (ie: working overnight)? Does it cause sleep disorders?
  • Can anyone work overnight, or are some people more suited to night work than others?
  • Do gravediggers really dig graves at night? (this question seems appropriate as we approach Halloween)

Here’s what I found:

What are the effects of working the graveyard shift?

Disruption of natural sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm disorder

This can lead to hormonal imbalances, excessive sleepiness or insomnia

Weight gain and diabetes

Because shift workers often don’t get enough sleep, they are at increased risk of developing obesity and diabetes. A 2012 study of the effect restricting sleep and disrupting the body’s clock, or circadian rhythm, decreased metabolism among participants and caused a spike in their blood glucose after eating, a sign that the pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin. The researchers say that could translate to an extra 10 pounds of weight gain each year and an increased risk for diabetes.

Increased risk for work-related injuries and substance abuse

Costly mistakes at work, increased use of sick time and even substance abuse due to use of drugs or alcohol to improve sleep (click here for a full list of symptoms from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, AASM)

Can the night shift cause cancer or heart disease?

In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that working the graveyard shift would be listed as a “probable” cause of cancer. Recent studies have disproved the purported link between breast cancer and shift work, but there is still concern about the effects of working night shift over long periods of time. The initial conclusion was based on a review of previous research that assessed how disruption to sleep rhythm might impact breast cancer in animals.

In April 2016 a study from Brigham and Women’s hospital published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who work more than 10 years of rotating night shift work had a 15-18 percent increased risk of developing coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, compared to women who did not work rotating night shifts.

There is obviously concern about the long-term effects of shift work and sleep cycle disruption. However, there are treatment for sleep cycle disruption including bright light therapy, sleep medications, sleep supplements, and implementing a proper sleep routine (here’s more great info from the AASM including prevention by observing proper sleep hygiene).

Are some people better suited to night-work than others?

According to WebMD, there really is a biological difference between night owls and early birds. There are differences in our circadian rhythms. So yes, some people (night owls) may make better sleep techs than others. But this can change over your lifetime, and even night owls need to stick to a regular sleep schedule.

Do gravediggers dig graves at night?

Turns out the phrase “graveyard shift” has nothing to do with the digging of graves, but it’s still really morbid. Here’s an explanation from

In the 1800s, medical science wasn’t what it is today, and people who were merely in a deep coma were often pronounced dead. When their coffins were dug up (who knows why….flooding perhaps, or by vandals) they would occasionally find scratch/claw marks on the inside of the coffin lid, indicating that the person had regained consciousness and tried to fight their way out. The practice then became to attach a bell on a long cord to the hand of the supposedly deceased. During the day, the cemetery attendants would listen for bells ringing, but the shift of workers whose sole job was to listen for the bells of the buried but undead, from midnight to dawn, became known as the Graveyard Shift. 
On that note… Sleep Well!

Are you a registered polysomnographic technician looking for a new career opportunity? Find out more about joining our team of RPSGTs across Southern California.

Join our team!

Are you concerned that you may have a work-related sleep disorder? Request an appointment with one of our sleep specialists.

Request consultation


Other posts you may find interesting:

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2013 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


  1. High Rated Gabru Reply

    Historical blogs. Please keep sharing!!!

  2. Jess Maeson Reply

    The tech who attaches all of the electrodes and tucks you in for a good night’s sleep at the sleep center.

  3. tiny fishing Reply

    The sleep center technician who connects all of the electrodes and tucks you in for a nice night’s sleep.

  4. María Reply

    the American Association of Sleep Technologists celebrates Sleep Tech Week to recognize the technologists who play a vital role in sleep centers across the country.

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    Thank you for sharing this amazing post. keep up the great work.

  6. Roscoe Reply

  7. dynamons world Reply

    Thanks to reading this article, I have changed a lot of bad sleeping habits.

  8. Sean K. Reply

    There has been many controversies as to where the term Graveyard Shift originated. The truth of the matter is that the term was coined in Seattle during the Denny Regrade project in the late 1800’s through early 1930’s.
    Before the removal of Denny Hill in Seattle they needed to relocate a cemetery at the top of the hill. The cemetery was relocated and the work of relocating the cemetery started out being done during daylight (Working Hours). Due to the massive distaste and complaints of the citizens of Seattle the work of relocating the cemetery was moved to late at night when most people were at home and in bed coining the term, the Graveyard Shift.

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  11. Reply

    I wanted to start this week with a real warm and fuzzy post about how grateful we are for our sleep technologists.

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  13. Amos Reply

    I have always used the term “graveyard shift” to denote hours between midnight and early morning… courtesy of America and British crime documentaries.

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    Thank you! Now I am already aware of this reason. I will share this to my family.

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