Of the many health‐related effects of shift work, disturbed sleep is the most common. This review describes the main observed effects of the three principal shifts (night, morning and afternoon) on patterns of sleep and wakefulness. The mechanism of sleep disruption in relation to circadian rhythms and the specific impact of aspects of shift organization (speed and direction of rotation) are discussed. The most troublesome acute symptoms are difficulty getting to sleep, shortened sleep and somnolence during working hours that continues into successive days off. These are only partially amenable to amelioration by manipulating shift patterns. However, there is no clear indication that chronic sleep problems result from long‐term shift work.