night shift nursesSleep deprivation is much more than just an inconvenience for night-shift nurses. 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 effects of too little sleep.

Numerous studies have identified a link between the lack of sleep and increased safety risks for healthcare providers and patients. Its effects are generally most acute for nurses working on the night shift, and they may be even more pronounced for those in critical-care settings. Those specialized and demanding work environments require nurses to make quick assessments and rapid decisions.

In addition, patient volume is unpredictable in emergency departments, with patients typically in unstable conditions. That means nurses in the ER must remain highly vigilant in order to respond promptly and appropriately to changes in a patient’s condition.

An article published in the 2007 edition of 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.)

It also notes that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to long-term health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. 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 Benefits

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.

The Need for Sleep Rooms

Many hospitals have already made the link between sleep and performance with respect to doctors. As such, they have created sleep rooms for ER physicians, surgeons and specialists.

With healthcare becoming increasingly complex, it will be more important for RNs and other nursing professionals to be well-rested and alert while on duty as well. Healthcare facilities that provide nurses with the opportunity for restorative napping could see improvements in performance and 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.

As these studies show, something as short as a 20-minute nap for both day-shift and night-shift nurses can make them better prepared to address their patients’ needs.