World Sleep Day

Quality and quantity of sleep is an issue for the nursing workforce  

 Kim Sunley 16 Mar 2018

Driving home after a night shift, arriving home and not remembering the journey; needing copious amounts of caffeine to get you through a rapidly rotating shift; needing matchsticks to keep your eyes open after being up all night caring for a sick dependent and then needing to go into work the next day – sound familiar?

Night shift work, poorly designed shift patterns and working shifts whilst balancing the demands of caring responsibilities outside work can make it challenging for nursing staff to get good quality sleep, leading to fatigue and potential health problems.

Shift work has long been recognised as a risk factor for sleep difficulties which can then result in fatigue at work. More recently quantity and quality of sleep is becoming recognised as a determinant of health and obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are just some of the conditions that have been linked to sleep deprivation.

So what needs to be done to protect the health of shift working nursing staff and the patients they care for?

At a systems level, if addressing patient safety issues is top of the NHS’s agenda, then managing fatigue related risks to the nursing workforce should be a key priority. Mistakes and drug errors are made when nursing staff are exhausted and sleep deprived. Moreover, addressing the health risks to shift workers is also essential and should be part of the myriad of national and local initiatives to address health and wellbeing of the nursing workforce.

At a local level, there is much that health care employers can do including:

  • well-designed shift patterns that are compliant with the working time regulations
  • introduction of power naps for those working long or night shifts
  • raising awareness of good sleep hygiene
  • extra support for shift workers with health conditions that may make sleeping difficult
  • effective carers’ leave policies

At an individual, learn about good sleep hygiene particularly if you are new to shift work or you may have got into bad habits…and yes it does mean turning off your devices an hour before bed!

Where to get advice

Last month Public Health England and Business in the Community launched an excellent toolkit on Sleep and Recovery to support employers and individuals understand the importance of good sleep and sign post to other information. The RCN’s ‘A Shift in the Right Direction’ also provides advice on well-designed shifts and support on sleep for nursing staff. New guidance is also due to be published by the NHS Staff Council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group.

Kim Sunley

Kim Sunley

Senior Employment Relations Adviser


Kim Sunley is a Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the Royal College of Nursing. Kim works to improve the health and safety and working environment for nursing staff across the United Kingdom.
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Page last updated - 05/09/2018