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Why Sleep Deprivation is an Undetected Risk for Healthcare Workers

In September, a study titled “Short Sleep Duration in Working American Adults” found the prevalence of sleep deprivation among adults rose significantly from 2010 to 2018. The study, conducted by researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, tracked self-reporting of sleep duration among 150,000 adults working across occupations in the United States. Researchers discovered “short sleep duration”, defined as seven hours of sleep or less, increased from 30.9% in 2010 to 35.6% in 2018. For healthcare workers, rates of sleep deprivation were even higher than average, with 45% of respondents reporting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Often, healthcare employees reported getting only five or six hours per night, meaning many of the individuals in high-stress roles were getting too few hours of low quality sleep. 

Scientists understand that lack of sleep damages physical and mental health, making sleep deprivation a potentially undetected risk for workers. Sleep deprivation can result in cognitive impairment, negatively impacting performance in tasks which require vigilance, decision-making, or memory-planning, according to the American Academy of Sleep. Healthcare jobs often require sharp critical thinking skills, and workers compromised by sleep-deprivation may make mistakes on the job, putting both workers and patients in danger. 

Hospital and healthcare facility safety managers have a responsibility to communicate the risks of sleep deprivation to employees, and encourage positive sleep hygiene. In order to mitigate potential crises caused by sleep loss, managers should address the root causes of the issue. Many factors may be contributing to healthcare employees getting exponentially less sleep over the years, but insufficient stress management, being constantly “on-call”, and sleep disruptions caused by shift-scheduling are the biggest issues. Safety managers can take a holistic approach to stress management or mental health support to workers, and teach better sleep routines for those with erratic schedules. 

Why Aren’t Healthcare Workers Getting Adequate Sleep? 

Researchers did not study the reasons why workers are getting less sleep, but Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health sciences who headed the study, reported the biggest reason had to do with stress, which is on the rise among all Americans, according to NPR. For workers in high-stress fields, such as law enforcement or healthcare, it can be difficult to compartmentalize work and outside life, and witnessing stressful situations can make it difficult for the brain to rest. At work, healthcare workers deal with severe-illness or injury, and are coping with high-stake life-or-death situations, which can be difficult to detach from at the end of the day. For doctors, being “on-call” can make it even more difficult to take a break from workplace pressure, exacerbating insomnia and disruptions to sleep schedules. 

Related Blog: Why Nurses Need Mental Health Days

Unfortunately, the benefits of healthy sleep require getting an appropriate number of sleep hours, as well as regular timing, daily regularity, and high-quality sleep free from disorders, according to the AASM. Healthcare employees often work odd-hours and experience frequent changes in shifts and schedules, which make a sleep routine difficult to implement, especially given how an overnight shift might result in disruptions in circadian rhythm. Many healthcare employees are susceptible to Sleep Wake Disorder (SWD), which is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder characterized by insomnia or excessive sleepiness in association with working a nontraditional work schedule which interrupts natural sleep rhythms. 

The Cleveland Clinic estimates that between 10 and 40 percent of healthcare shift workers experience disruptions in their circadian rhythm, or SWD. While employees can’t change the hours a healthcare job requires, employers can encourage positive sleep practices to manage irregular schedules and mitigate the symptoms of sleep deprivation. SWD can be treated with behavioral strategies, and current treatment guidelines recommend nonpharmacologic interventions such as exercise and exposure to light, as per NCBI. 

How To Address Sleep Deprivation in Healthcare  

Less than optimal sleep can negatively affect performance in the workplace, impairing critical cognitive skills healthcare workers rely on everyday. In NPR,  Khubchandani cited these risks as just one reason employers “have a role to play” in promoting healthy strategies and making sure workers receive help with sleep issues. Khubchandani recommended healthcare facilities promote lifestyle changes such as healthy diet, exercise, and meditation to manage stress and obtain better sleep. Workers can also create routines around bedtime to better prepare their body for sleep, such as practicing mindfulness meditation and engaging in quiet, sedentary, relaxing activities, as per NPR. 

For many healthcare workers, struggling to sleep may seem like part of their role - as with other workplace safety concerns, physicians and nurse practitioners often assume difficulties are just “part of the job.” Even with long shifts and a national nurse shortage contributing to increased overtime expectations for workers, it’s important for safety managers to encourage employees to get enough sleep. Teach employees good sleep hygiene - following a stressful day at a hospital or healthcare facility, many workers may have trouble relaxing. Sleep specialists recommend a “mult-modal” approach to manage SWD, such as healthy diet, exercise, melatonin, light therapy, and seeking social support from friends, families, or licensed psychology professionals. 

Related Blog: Do We Underestimate How Much Nurses Deal with on a Daily Basis?

A personal safety app for healthcare workers can help combat workplace violence and mitigate stress. Even though healthcare employees make up just 9% of the workforce, these employees experience nearly as many violent injuries as all other injuries combined. Incidents of serious workplace violence are nearly four times as common in healthcare than in the private sector. A safety app can provide workers with a reliable way to connect with 9-1-1 or security during an emergency incident, and by encouraging employees to which can provide relief during a high-stress shift. By giving employees the tools needed to better manage stressful situations on the shop, healthcare employers can help workers mitigate the physical and mental 

A content portal available through the app can house all of the facilities sleep-related resources, from sleep hygiene training to mental health support. Breaking the stigma around seeking help, making sure employees understand trauma does not need to be just “part of the job” and relieve those who are struggling with mental health in silence, can also contribute to better sleep health for workers.

protecting healthcare workers

Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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