The nurses and sleep

The nurses and sleep

An ordinary person with normal working hours will have a regular circadian rhythm. This is a biological mechanism which causes people to become sleepy at particular times of the day. However, shift work, particularly night shifts, disrupts the body’s rhythm. In serious cases, it may develop into a condition referred to as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).

For nurses, shift work is an inevitable part of their work. While the general symptoms of SWSD are insomnia and excessive sleepiness, nurses may develop the more severe symptoms of SWSD due to the variety of shift work and different sleep schedules they face. Thus, nurses should not neglect SWSD and seek steps to manage this condition.

Symptoms of SWSD

Insomnia and excessive sleepiness at inappropriate times are the most common symptoms and the best indicators for SWSD. As nurses have to work night shifts and possibly switch shifts as required, they tend to have difficulty falling asleep even after they have been rotated off the night shifts. Following that, nurses may struggle to stay awake during the next shift and may even fall asleep as they carry out their duties.

Nurses plagued by SWSD will find it difficult to remain alert, and their mental performance may decrease. Other symptoms of SWSD are insufficient sleep quantity, poor sleep quality and cognitive impairment.


Those who experience such symptoms constantly should consult a doctor, to determine if their condition goes beyond the normal tolls of shift work. If their symptoms developed into SWSD, the doctors would assess their condition and list the various treatment options and advice, some of which are described below:

Execute a sleep schedule

While it will be a challenge, developing a sleep schedule will assure that the nurse gets an adequate amount of quality sleep. The nurse should properly plan their sleep schedule, such as when to sleep and when to wake up, then strictly follow the schedule. Their sleep should not be interrupted, so as to ensure they can recharge their body and energy for their work.

Strategic ‘shift rotation’
Nurses who have night shifts for two or three consecutive days are more likely to have an inadequate amount and poor quality of sleep. One way to remedy their sleep deprivation is to limit the number of night shifts in a row or schedule off days in between these shifts.

For example, home health nurses who typically work a 12-hour shift should limit work to three or four night shifts in a row. Whenever possible, nurses should avoid extended working hours and putting in excessive overtime. They should also avoid frequently rotating shifts, which is more difficult to deal with compared to following the same shift over a longer period.

Get naps between shifts

Nurses can plan a nap before or during the night shift, as they are many positive psychological effects of taking a nap at work, for instance increased alertness during the shifts. If the nurse’s unit or department allows them a restorative break in between their work, they should take a power nap of between 10 to 30 minutes to replenish their body and brain.

Try melatonin pills

As the reduction in melatonin production can lead to insomnia, some experts recommend taking melatonin pills to restore the homeostatic circadian rhythm and a safe supplement to manage the symptoms of SWSD. For the melatonin pills to be the most effective, it is best taken at night and before going to bed.

Like other care providers, sleep deprivation is sometimes inescapable for nurses. However, nurses should be alarmed if they constantly face difficulties in sleep, as it may be a symptom of SWSD. Left untreated, SWSD may endanger the nurse and their patients. Therefore nurses should take actions to treat the situation for better health and life.




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