How Health Care Professionals Can Sleep Better Despite Shift Work

How Health Care Professionals Can Sleep Better Despite Shift Work

Shift work is common in the health care professions, but that doesn’t make it healthy. Working nights or rotating shifts is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and possibly even cancer. While the reasons aren’t fully understood, researchers believe it’s a lack of sleep that’s behind this heightened disease risk.

Irregular work schedules disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that tells your body when it's time to feel awake or tired. The result is difficulty falling and staying asleep, poor quality sleep during the night, and fatigue and impaired concentration during the day. This is known as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), and if left unresolved, it can contribute to more serious health problems from depression to heart disease.

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SWSD doesn't only affect your health, it also affects the quality of care you're able to provide to patients. The Patient Safety Network reports that fatigue impairs healthcare providers' concentration, reaction times, and decision-making abilities. As a result, providers are more likely to make medical errors and communicate ineffectively with patients and colleagues. Over time, SWSD can contribute to burnout.

Unfortunately, long hours and shift work are common in the medical professions and unlikely to change due to the 24/7 nature of healthcare and widespread understaffing. The fight for better scheduling is far from over, but for now, doctors and nurses must learn to cope with their demanding schedules. Here’s what they can do.

Improve the Sleep Environment

Between sunlight, outside noise, and interruptions, a peaceful sleep environment is harder to achieve during daylight hours. Medical workers can shut out distractions and create a bedroom environment that mimics night by following these tips.

● Hang blackout curtains or blinds to exclude outside light.

● Wear earplugs and run a white noise machine to minimize distracting sounds.

● Program the thermostat to between 60 and 67 degrees during sleep hours.

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● Invest in a better mattress, especially if back pain is an issue while sleeping or at work.  A good mattress relieves pressure points and aligns the spine to minimize discomfort. For example, memory foam is a popular choice for back pain, which 80 percent of Americans will experience at some point in their lives.

● Turn cell phones to silent. Shift workers who are on call should edit their phone's “Do Not Disturb” settings to permit calls from specific contacts.

● Share work schedules with friends and family so they understand which hours they shouldn't call or visit.

Keep a Schedule

Working overnight plays against the body's natural circadian rhythms, which trigger sleepiness at night and alertness during the day. Overriding that natural rhythm to be alert at night is possible, but it requires consistency. Shift workers should aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even on their days off.

If their schedule requires variable shifts that make regularly scheduled sleep impossible, shift workers should schedule enough time to get seven to nine hours of sleep every day. Avoid staying up all night the evening before a night shift in order to “get on schedule.” Doing so increases the risk of sleep deprivation and fatigue on the job. Where possible, shift workers should advocate for a better schedule that makes sleep-work balance possible.

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Trick the Brain

The body’s circadian clock is timed to natural light cycles. By changing how they receive natural light, medical professionals can better adapt to shift work. People who start their day when it’s dark should use a light box upon waking to mimic natural sunlight. This tricks the body into believing it’s daytime. At the end of a shift, Cigna recommends workers mimic evening hours by wearing dark sunglasses while driving home. Some people also benefit from taking melatonin supplements, as shift work can disrupt the body’s natural production of melatonin.

Long hours and shifting schedules are the nature of today’s health care professions. However, 24/7 care shouldn’t come at the sake of health. By improving their sleep, doctors, nurses, and other health care providers can improve their own health and, in turn, the quality of their care.