Nurses Sleep Far Less on Work Days

Nurses sleep nearly an hour and a half less before work days compared to days off, which hurts patient care and safety, finds a new study by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing. 

“Nurses are sleeping, on average, less than recommended amounts prior to work, which may have an impact on their health and performance on the job,” said Amy Witkoski Stimpfel, PhD, RN, the study’s lead author.

Nursing, especially in hospitals, is dominated by shift work, with nurses working outside of the traditional 9-to-5 day in order to be at the bedside around the clock. Research shows that shift work takes a toll on circadian rhythms and can impair the performance of workers.

In addition, 12-hour shifts are common and often result in unexpected overtime to finish patient care tasks or charting. Taken together with commute times and domestic responsibilities, nurses often have limited time to sleep before or between shifts.

Sleep deprivation hurts workers’ ability to handle complex and stressful tasks, and work-related sleep loss has led to serious errors in other industries, with the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl as a particularly devastating example. In healthcare, fatigued nurses may be a risk for making critical mistakes in administering medication or making clinical decisions.

Can nurses “catch up” on sleep between shifts? Witkoski Stimpfel said it is unlikely.

“Research on chronic partial sleep deprivation in healthy adults shows that after several days of not getting enough sleep, more than one day of ‘recovery sleep’–or more than 10 hours in bed–may be needed to return to baseline functioning. But considering a nurse’s schedule, which often involves consecutive 12-hour shifts and may only offer one or two days off between shifts, the risk of complete recovery, or ‘catching up,’ is low,” noted Witkoski Stimpfel.

The researchers note that more research on nurses’ sleep is needed, but in the interim, healthcare leaders can use evidence-based scheduling strategies, limit the use of overtime, and provide professional development on the importance of sleep for nurses.