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Sleep is an innate primal instinct. It’s something we are born with and need in order to survive, but no one really knows why.

Each of us has an internal clock – a circadian rhythm – to help us know instinctively when it’s time to rest and time to wake up. Better sleep is beneficial to our brains, our general sense of wellbeing and health – it can even help us live longer. Yet, it’s estimated around 40% of people in the UK have sleep issues and many are unsure how to get support.

Shift patterns

For nursing staff, sleep can be particularly troublesome, especially for those working shifts as the body’s natural instinct to sleep or wake is disrupted. Long periods of disrupted sleep are associated with serious health conditions, such as stroke, diabetes and depression.  

When working different shifts, it's important to return to a usual sleep pattern

Dr Sarah Gilchrist is a performance consultant with a doctorate in sleep and athletic performance and on the advisory board for The Sleep Charity. “When we’re asleep, our brains are focussing on restoring and repairing our bodies,” says Sarah. “During the pandemic, many people will have experienced a change in sleep due to the change in routine and anxiety about the virus.

“Nursing staff are at the forefront of this uncertainty and panic and have probably had disruption to their usual sleep pattern. Added to this, many nursing staff have been working extra hours or different shift patterns, which has an effect on sleep quality.”

Sleep support

Sarah says there are many things nursing staff can do to ensure they’re able to switch off and go to sleep.

“When working different shifts, it’s important to try to return to a usual sleep pattern; getting back to sleeping at night and avoiding sleeping during the day when your night shifts end. Keep mealtimes regular and protect time away from work by switching off phones, leaving notes for delivery people and investing in black-out blinds or eye masks.”

Ideally, people should be aiming for at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Sarah says it’s important to make sure to keep to a wind down routine, avoiding alcohol and phone screens close to bedtime.

Top tips for sleeping well

  1. A comfortable bedroom: A cool, calm environment with light-blocking blinds/curtains and a suitable mattress and pillow.
  2. Food and drink: Have a warm, milky drink and no alcohol straight before bed and avoid eating a big meal.
  3. Calm activities: A warm bath, reading a book or writing a journal can all help to aid sleep.
  4. Reduce screen time: Screens keep brains awake, so try to avoid scrolling on your phone or watching a TV show right before you want to go to sleep.
  5. Mindfulness: Listening to music, practising mindfulness techniques and yoga are proven to help aid sleep.

Seeking help for sleep

“Every now and then people do have disrupted sleep because of a night out or illness and that’s normal – in fact it’s entirely normal to not sleep well sometimes.

“However, many people have habits that are not conducive to good sleep. A heavy meal, intense exercise near bedtime and looking at a phone screen can all affect how quickly we drop off and our quality of sleep. As we’re all different, with differing habits and lifestyles, the main thing is to do what works for you to ensure a good night’s sleep.”

Seek professional help if sleep disturbance is a huge issue

Regular reduced sleep can affect mood and wellbeing. But depression and other mental health issues can also affect sleep, so it’s important to seek help when quality of sleep has changed or staying asleep is difficult.

“There are obvious links to emotional stability enhanced by good sleep,” says Sarah. “For some people who are not getting enough sleep or feel tired all the time, there could be underlying health conditions, so seeking professional help initially through a GP or contacting the Sleep Charity is wise if sleep disturbance is a huge issue.”

Dr Sarah Gilchrist

Dr Sarah Gilchrist

Sleep facts

  • Regularly getting less than six hours of sleep a night is considered sleep deprivation.
  • One sixth of vehicle accidents are caused by lack of sleep.
  • Poor quality sleep makes fighting off infections harder.
  • Around £40bn is lost to the UK economy each year because of sleep related issues.
  • Four in five long term poor sleepers suffer from low mood. Poor sleepers are also seven times more likely to feel helpless and five times more likely to feel alone.

Further support

The RCN’s health, safety and wellbeing webpages have tips and advice for general wellbeing including sleep and mindfulness techniques, as well as food and nutrition advice.

The Sleep Charity have lots of tips and advice about sleep and where to seek help if you’re struggling.

Contact Dr Sarah Gilchrist on LinkedIn.

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