One in eight nurses take medication to stay awake at work as researchers say ‘exhausted staff are responsible for thousands of fatal errors in hospitals’
- Study of more than 1,000 nurses in the US found 13% take drugs to stay alert
- And 31% suffer from chronic insomnia and shift-work disorder
- Almost 100,000 deaths occur every year in US hospitals due to ‘medical errors’
Nearly one in eight nurses rely on prescription medication to stay awake during their shift, research suggests.
A study of more than 1,000 nurses in the US found 13 per cent turn to drugs to stop them nodding off on the job.
The research, which looked at sleeping habits among nurses, also found that 31 per cent of those surveyed suffered from chronic insomnia.
Exhausted staff may be responsible for some of the 100,000 deaths that occur every year in US hospitals as a result of medical errors, the researchers warn.
Nearly one in eight nurses rely on medication to stay awake during their shift (stock)
While the study only looked at nurses in the US, it comes amid a growing shortage of the staff in the NHS, with many blaming the profession’s long hours.
The research was carried out by the University of Oklahoma and led by Dr Francis Christian, of the department of internal medicine.
‘We were surprised by the number of nurses potentially suffering from common sleep disorders, most notably, chronic insomnia and shift-work disorder,’ Dr Christian said.
Shift-work disorder can occur in people who work unconventional hours, such as those on late-night or rotating shifts.
It is defined as excessive sleepiness when you need to be awake and alert, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
It is widely acknowledged that nurses are at increased risk of sleep deprivation and poor sleep behaviours due to their hectic shift patterns.
WHAT ELSE DID THE STUDY FIND?
The results also found 18.5 per cent of the nurses suffered from moderate-to-severe sleep apnoea.
This occurs when the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, which blocks airflow for at least 10 seconds.
The lack of oxygen triggers the brain to pull you out of deep sleep so the airways reopen.
Left untreated, this lack of sleep can affect a person’s day-to-day life. Over time, it also increases their risk of high blood pressure, stroke or a heart attack.
The results also showed 4.5 per cent of the nurses showed signs of ‘excessive daytime sleepiness’.
And 14 per cent suffered from restless leg syndrome. This is a condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming urge to move the lower limbs.
Severe cases can disrupt sleep and even trigger depression, according to the NHS.
However, how common insomnia and sleep deprivation is among the medical staff had never before been studied in the US.
The researchers therefore had 1,165 nurses complete an online survey that asked about their sleep habits.
This included any insomnia symptoms, ‘excessive’ daytime fatigue, and the use of sleeping pills – none were named.
Results revealed 13 per cent of the nurses relied on medication to keep them awake, with the same number also battling shift-work disorder.
As well as struggling to stay alert, more than a quarter (27 per cent) of the nurses took sleeping pills to help them nod off.
And nearly half (49 per cent) averaged at 6.6 hours of sleep a night, compared to just 28 per cent of the US public.
This is less than the minimum seven hours recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
The researchers hope the results of the study will lead to ‘a focus on self-awareness and interventions’ to prevent sleep disorders among nurses.
Dr Christian and his colleagues added this is necessary to ensure ‘proper safety and performance at work’.
‘Recognition needs to take place so we can screen appropriately and make scheduling modifications to help alleviate the burden of shift work disorder among nurses,’ Dr Christian said.
The findings were presented at SLEEP 2019 in Texas, the 33rd annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.
More than 200,000 nurses have quit the NHS since 2010, official figures revealed back in March.
The most common reasons for nurses quitting the health service were retirement or relocation.
However, the biggest category was an unknown reason – thought to be due to the long hours nurses have to work.
HOW TO COPE WITH SLEEP PROBLEMS
Poor sleep can lead to worrying and worrying can lead to poor sleep, according to the mental-health charity Mind.
A lack of shut eye is considered a problem when it impacts on a person’s daily life.
As a result, they may feel anxious if they believe lack of sleep prevents them from rationalising their thoughts.
Insomnia is also associated with depression, psychosis and PTSD.
Establishing a sleep routine where you go to bed and get up at the same time every day can help a person spend less time in bed and more time asleep.
Calming music, breathing exercises, visualising pleasant memories and meditation also encourage shut eye.
Having tech-free time an hour or so before bed can also prepare you for sleep.
If you still struggle to nod off, keeping a sleep diary where you record the hours you spend asleep and the quality of your shut eye on a scale of one to five can be a good thing to show your doctor.
Also note how many times you wake in the night, if you need to nap, if you have nightmares, your diet and your general mood.
Sleep problems can be a sign of an underlying physical condition, like pain.
Talking therapies can help your recongise unhelpful thought patterns that might affect sleep.
While medication, such as sleeping pills, can help break short periods of insomnia and help you return to better a sleeping pattern.