For nurses, sleep deprivation is much more than just an inconvenience. It can have a significant impact on patient safety, as well as on the safety of nurses themselves. Impaired decision-making, slower reflexes and motor skills, and heightened stress levels are all potential consequences of too little sleep.
Numerous studies have identified a link between sleep deprivation and increased safety risks for healthcare providers and patients. The effects of a lack of sleep generally are most acute for nurses working the night shift, although they may be even more pronounced for those in critical-care settings. Specialized and demanding, those work environments require nurses to make quick assessments and rapid decisions.
In addition, patient volume is unpredictable in emergency departments and patients typically are in unstable conditions. That means nurses must remain highly vigilant in order to respond promptly and appropriately to changes in a patient’s condition.
An article published in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety noted that nurses typically don’t meet average daily sleep requirements. The article also cited two studies that found that nurses were at least twice as likely to make a medical error when working extended shifts (12.5 hours or longer.)
In addition, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to long-term health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the 2007 article. Studies also have found that women – who comprise the vast majority of nurses – experience elevated levels of sleep disturbance during shift work compared to men.
Restorative Napping and Sleep Rooms
One potential solution to safety issues associated with sleep deprivation is to encourage nurses to use their break times to take brief naps. Often known as restorative napping, these short breaks have the potential to boost performance and accuracy, reduce fatigue and improve mood for nurses working extended hours or the night shift.
“Several studies support positive outcomes for on-duty napping for health professionals,” noted a 2011 study in Critical Care Nurse, the journal of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
The study’s authors reviewed the effect of napping on nurses working in intensive care units or emergency departments. A majority of the nurses reported having improved mood and response time when they were able to nap.
“Even a short 20-minute nap was viewed by some nurses as restorative, allowing them to better attend to their job and improve their work performance,” the study noted.
Many hospitals have already made the link between sleep and performance with respect to doctors, and have created sleep rooms for ER physicians, surgeons and specialists. As technology and other factors increase the complexity of healthcare, it will become more important for RNs and other nursing professionals to be well-rested and alert while on duty.
Healthcare facilities that provide nurses with the opportunity for restorative napping could see improvements in performance, as well as heightened safety for employees and patients.
“Given the complexity of the environments within which critical care nurses work, researchers, administrators, and nurses must work together to find creative ways to develop effective napping interventions and environments conducive to napping, and, in turn, healthier and more effective nurses,” the Critical Care Nurse article concluded.