It’s no secret—most nurses don’t get enough sleep. While many Americans admit to not getting enough shut eye, the implications for nurses are far reaching.

The National Sleep Foundation recognizes this week (March 8 – 14) as National Sleep Awareness Week. The irony isn’t lost on nurses that a week devoted to sleep coincides with National Patient Safety Awareness Week (and the switch to Daylight Savings Time and an hour of lost sleep). Patient safety depends on a healthcare workforce that’s able to perform at a consistently high level. Getting less-than-optimal sleep or not sleeping enough cuts into everything from reaction time to memory and has a big impact on the quality of care offered by sleep deprived nurses.

How serious is sleep deprivation to nurses? As many people know, getting enough good-quality rest takes an effort and some planning. For nurses, who tend to have sleep disrupted even more because of changing shift work, planning for a consistent pattern of sleep is a huge challenge.

Last December, a study by researchers at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing found that nurses are getting less sleep before they head to work than they should. The study found “sleep deprivation hurts workers’ ability to handle complex and stressful tasks. … In healthcare, fatigued nurses may be a risk for making critical mistakes in administering medication or making clinical decisions.” Many factors influenced nurses and sleep including changing shifts, length of shifts, commuting time, and family responsibilities, and there’s often little nurses can do to change those major influences. The report, say the authors, is evidence that the overall working environment in healthcare needs an overhaul, especially in areas of overtime, scheduling, and prioritizing sleep.

If nurses can’t change their major responsibilities, there are a few other things they can do that can help them get more rest. Awareness about the impacts of poor sleep and not enough sleep is critical for nurses. While some people can get by skimping on sleep, patients depend on nurses being in top form.

If sleep is a problem for you, here are some things to consider.

  • Physical issues like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome can disrupt your sleep.
  • Shift Work Disorder is directly related to those who work varying shifts and disrupt their circadian rhythms.
  • A sleep environment that’s not comfortable can be problematic.
  • For women, hormones can play a big role in sleep disruption.
  • Family responsibilities like waking children, active teens, and even caring for aging parents can interrupt your sleep.
  • Stress keeps you up at night.

Fixing the problem starts with identifying it, so take some time to figure out what’s happening in your own life. Making your sleep a priority is probably one of the best ways to get more rest, but it’s also the hardest. Realize that getting your best sleep likely means sacrifice in some other area.

Start with a complete physical if you think apnea, restless legs, or chronic insomnia might be keeping you up. Then make small, incremental changes—maybe by getting to bed 15 or 30 minutes earlier. Assess your bedroom and see if you can make changes to adjust the comfort level in any way. Can your bedtime routine be adjusted at all to give you a little more quiet or a little more routine so your body is triggered into sleep mode. Take a hard look at your responsibilities—can you get help with anything or can you let some things go? What small changes can you make to reduce your stress (therapy, a 10-minute walk, a few minutes to read or to listen to a funny podcast on your commute)?

Getting enough rest is one of the easiest health priorities to let slide. As a nation of sleep-deprived people, you might feel like your issue is no different from anyone else’s. That might be true, but nurses especially owe it to themselves to be as well rested as possible. Your job is physically and mentally exhausting, even on the good days. Restorative sleep helps your body and mind recover and helps keep you at the top of your game.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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