It’s tough to remain fresh and alert during an 8-hour shift, a 12-hour shift is tougher still, but either shift at night is toughest of all. Our bodies require, on average, seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. Nurses average only 6.8 hours of sleep on their workdays, say sleep experts.

Alertness is a valuable quality in any employee but it’s absolutely crucial for nurses. A drowsy receptionist may put you through to the wrong extension, say, but a tired nurse can make a life-threatening error in patient care.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, sleep deficient nurses “may have impaired performance, miss subtle signs of patient deterioration, and fail to detect medication errors.”

Other researchers have shown that even moderate sleep deprivation mimics alcohol consumption. You wouldn’t show up for your shift sloshed, so don’t arrive bleary-eyed because of poor sleep hygiene.

Sleep is a basic physiological need, similar to the need for food and water. Though some nurses would like to believe they can shortchange themselves on sleep, and still overcome the effects of sleepiness through sheer willpower, they really can’t.

No matter how much motivation, training, or experience you have, you still need sufficient sleep to perform well, protect your own health and safety, and that of your patients.

Not sure if your sleep habits are a cause for concern? Keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks. Some items to track: when and where you slept; for how long; if you were interrupted; how you felt upon waking; and how alert you were later in the day. Also note anything unusual, such as making the switch from day to night shift.

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Show the sleep diary to your doctor and discuss any patterns you notice, and then ask for ideas on how to improve your sleep.

Or, nurses can use the Epworth Sleepiness Scale to determine if they have problem sleepiness.

The test asks if you often feel like you could doze off during the day while:
•       Sitting and reading or watching TV
•       Sitting still in a public place, such as a movie theater, meeting, or classroom
•       Riding in a car for an hour without stopping
•       Sitting and talking to someone
•       Sitting quietly after lunch
•       Sitting in traffic for a few minutes

What’s the solution for sleep deprivation in nurses? Sleep researchers have a number of recommendations, which I will cover next. In the meantime, let us know how you get enough Zzzzz’s.

Jebra Turner is a health reporter and former H.R. director for an ergonomics-focused firm, where she oversaw workplace health and safety training programs for staff and clients. She lives in Portland, Oregon, but you can visit her at

Jebra Turner
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