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RN Studies Effects of Longer Shifts on Nurses’ Rest Patterns

Friday May 6, 2011
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Newly released research by an RN adds to the debate concerning 12-hour nursing shifts.

Jeanne Geiger-Brown, RN, PhD, of the University of Maryland Baltimore, has researched the impact of extended work on the ability of RNs to routinely get seven to eight hours of sleep.

To find out how nurses are faring with 12-hour shifts, Geiger-Brown recruited 80 hospital nurses from a southern U.S. hospital and outfitted them with an actigraph, a wristwatch-like device that measures their sleep. Two-thirds of the RNs in her study got fewer than six hours of sleep between 12-hour shifts. One-third got fewer than five hours of sleep, and some only had two hours of sleep.

Geiger-Brown said most of the nurses in her study were chronically sleep deprived because working a 12-hour shift often does not give nurses enough time to rest.

“Many don’t leave their workplaces when their shift is over, but remain at work for 30 to 60 minutes or more to finish their activities and charting,” Geiger-Brown said in a university news release. “Then there’s commute time plus chores to do at home.”

Geiger-Brown said many of her subjects know they are exhausted: “One nurse told me she has her husband call her on the cell phone while she’s driving home to keep her awake. Some nurses don’t go to the bathroom, hoping a full bladder will prevent them from falling asleep during their drive.”

Because sleep affects brain function, Geiger-Brown noted, nurses who are sleep deprived cannot process information effectively and may be irritable with colleagues and even patients. She said other studies have indicated nurses are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity and suppressed immune function. They also are at higher risk for making errors or sustaining an accident or injury on the job.

Geiger-Brown said exhausted nurses often have “false beliefs” about the risks of chronic sleep deprivation: Because they have not yet made an error or had an accident, they think they will not do so in the future. Or they believe that if they are careful, they will not harm a patient or themselves. The reality, she said, is that “no individual can control the consequences of chronic sleep deprivation. It’s a biologic phenomenon that is beyond our control.”

Along with rethinking the 12-hour shift as the standard operating practice for nurses, Geiger-Brown said hospitals can help nurses better cope with extended shifts by allowing them to take naps while at work.

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