Sleep Deprivation in Night Shift Nurses

Medical professionals are some of the hardest workers on the planet. They've been the heroes in multi-colored scrubs that have held our hands through the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses have been on the front lines since March of 2020 and haven't looked back. 

Nurses work long, often grueling hours. They don't just need a restful night's sleep after a long shift—they deserve it. But with what they've seen and been through in the past year, it's no wonder some have had trouble establishing a consistent sleep schedule, especially night shift nurses.  

New nurses quickly discover that rotating shifts, 12-hour days, overtime, and night shifts can take a toll on their mental and physical health

Sleep Patterns in Night Shift Workers

New nurses quickly discover that rotating shifts, 12-hour days, overtime, and night shifts can take a toll on their mental and physical health. 

Working night shifts will directly impact your circadian rhythm, your sleep/wake cycle over a 24-hour period. 

For night-shift nurses, a 12-hour shift can easily turn into a 16, 18, or even 20-hour day—especially for those who have children or a second job—leaving only a couple hours for sleep before the cycle repeats. Those affected may begin to experience one of several side effects from missing sleep, like mood changes, mental fog, fatigue, or weight loss. 

The domino effect of night shifts combined with sleep deprivation can throw off your body's natural metabolism

Sleep Deprivation Side Effects 

Long shifts, especially night shifts, can lead to several adverse consequences on your body and brain: 

Physical Health 

The physical side-effects of sleep deprivation can creep up when left untreated. Night nurses, among others not getting a restful night's sleep, have an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and Cardiovascular disease. 

The domino effect of night shifts combined with sleep deprivation can throw off your body's natural metabolism. How many healthy food options are readily available between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m? Night nurses need enough calories and energy to make it through the shift, and those calories don't often come from the healthiest choices. 

Mental Health

Research shows that more than 50 percent of night-shift and rotating-shift healthcare workers get less than six hours of sleep per night. While one or two nights of poor sleep won't lead to long-lasting side effects, repeated cycles can take a toll on your mental health and mood. 

On the mental health side of the equation, long shifts combined with lack of sleep can lead to mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. Interpersonal relationships can begin to deteriorate as the effects of sleep deprivation on nurses intensifies. 

Error and Accidents

Sleep deprivation's effects on mental health go further than mood swings and irritability. Again, the domino effect of poor sleep habits can lead to fatigue and poor cognitive function. Slow response times can lead to workplace accidents, and the medical field has no room for mistakes. 

But the danger of sleep deprivation in medical workers extends beyond the operating room or clinic. Studies have made comparisons between drowsy driving and drunk driving. A sleepless night is comparable to being 0.10% over the legal blood alcohol level when operating a motor vehicle. 

Drowsy driving is linked to half a million injuries and thousands of deaths each year in the US. Long shifts and lack of sleep are putting the people we need, now more than ever, in harm's way.

While sleeping on the job isn't an option, there are a handful of tactics shift nurses can implement to ensure their bodies get the rest and recharge they need

Sleep Tips for Night Shift Nurses

While sleeping on the job isn't an option, there are a handful of tactics shift nurses can implement to ensure their bodies get the rest and recharge they need. 

Furthermore, healthy practices in the workplace, proper lighting, and moderate caffeine consumption can help keep night nurses alert during their shift while still sleeping afterward. 

The Centers for Disease Control offers a comprehensive strategy guide for workers and employers of shift workers, especially night nurses. A few strategies for getting better sleep as a night shift worker include: 

  • Maintain a Dark Bedroom– Light will keep you awake, especially sunlight during regular waking hours. Opaque window coverings and sleep masks can help.
  • The Right Mattress– Knowing your sleep preferences, such as position and feel, will aid in a restful night's sleep. 
  • Turn the Clock Away– Constantly checking the time/knowing the time can keep you awake. Stay ignorant to what time it is once you've gotten off work and focus on sleep. 
  • Teamwork– This one is significant for parents with young children. Communicate and distribute the load evenly when it comes to household chores and raising children. 
  • Go Right to Bed– When you return home from the night shift, don't distract yourself. Set yourself up for restful sleep and go right to bed. You may be hungry, and that will keep you up. Something small, with proteins and carbohydrates, is best. The CDC recommends cereal and milk. 

Nurses, We Need You to Sleep

People around the world need nurses now more than ever. They're working around the clock trying to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's taking a toll on them. We need—no, beg you to get the sleep you need and deserve.