Lately it’s been a pleasure to provide an intervention program for night-shift nurses to help them sleep well during the day, and thereby improve their alertness at night. For many nurses working nights a typical shift is 12 hours, often from 7pm to 7:30am. This requires them to function well during the hours that human beings are designed for sleep. Many of these employees like to sleep during the night on a similar schedule to their loved ones when not working, which keeps them in a perpetual state of circadian misalignment, making it even more difficult to function well at night.
In December 2011 the Joint Commission issued Sentinel Event Alert #48 on the effect of extended work hours and cumulative work hours on patient safety and nurse health. They summarize the extensive research on the performance effects of working at night. Some of the results of fatigue include:
- impaired information processing and judgement
- inability to focus attention
- reduced motivation
- loss of empathy
Fatigue among healthcare workers increases the risk of adverse events, decreases patient safety, and negatively impacts the health of the night shift workers.
The Commission report goes on to suggest steps organizations take to improve employee alertness and thereby improve patient safety. Fatigue management typically includes steps for both individual employees and the administration. Sleep training for employees so they can sleep well during the day, and entrain their circadian rhythm to the schedule, is one step. Another is fatigue reducing strategies such as precisely-timed caffeine and light to increase alertness on the job. Administrations can optimize their scheduling practices, and provide an alerting work environment. You can see the full Sentinel Event Report of the Joint Commission here: http://www.jointcommission.org/sea_issue_48/
Over the next 6 months I hope to continue this work for Seattle-area hospitals, and expand to help other public safety organizations that are providing 24/7 service, including the police and fire departments. Around the clock service is a must for public safety, and helping these night-shift staff to sleep well during the day, so they can be alert and healthy during the night is extremely rewarding!