Healthcare workers often put the health and safety of their patients first, neglecting to care for themselves. By providing continuous services 24 hours a day, many experience short, poor quality sleep, endangering not only their own health and safety, but also the risk of making mistakes that could compromise patient safety to take.
I’m a occupational health researcher which conducts research on work, sleep and health among healthcare workers. My research has shown that emotional labor – such as using fake smiles to hide true feelings – and conflict between work and family — such as clashing demands between roles at work and at home — are both linked to depressive symptoms in health care workers. And poor sleep quality can amplify the effects of these stressors, resulting in poorer mental health.
Healthcare workers face multiple challenges
Shift work and long working days are common parts of a healthcare job. Night shifts or alternating shifts that require you to be awake during the night and sleep during the day can misalign the biological clock, which is usually focused on waking during the day and sleeping during the night. This mismatch can result in drowsiness and decreased performance at work poor and shortened sleep during the day.
In addition, healthcare workers may have to deal with many others work stressorssuch as exposure to infectious diseases and chemical hazards, bullying and violence, heavy physical workload and time pressure. These require learning to manage emotions and feelings during interactions with patients and colleagues.
Still, some professionals in different fields may need it suppress their own emotions to do their job well. In our survey of more than 1,000 U.S. public sector health workers who work directly and indirectly with patients, my research team and I found that more than half had to mask their feelings at work without addressing them, and increasing levels of emotional labor were linked to increasing symptoms of depression.
In addition, healthcare workers often experience conflicting demands between their work and family roles. For example, a parent may need to take time off from work to care for a sick child. Research among American workers has shown that there can be conflicts between work and family adverse effects on physical and mental health.
In our study, about half of the healthcare workers we surveyed reported that their work interfered with their family life, while about 30% felt that family life interfered with their work. Importantly, these conflicts were linked to poor mental health like depression.
Poor sleep and mental health
The US National Health Interview Survey, an annual interview of adults among adults conducted by the US Census Bureau, found that 36% of employees had an average sleep duration of less than seven hours a day in 2018. A at least seven hours of sleep is recommended for optimal health and well-being. Sleep deprivation is more common among healthcare workers, affecting 45% of those surveyed. Our investigation found one even higher rate: More than half of the health professionals we studied reported less than seven hours of sleep per day and a third complained of sleep disturbances.
In addition, we found that a quarter of these healthcare workers suffered from depressive symptoms, a rate three times higher than in the Netherlands depression prevalence of the general US population.
Sleep plays a vital role in mental health. Short or arm sleep is a strong risk factor for depression and poor mental well-being. And that is common knowledge stress can disrupt sleep quality. Our research showed that disturbed sleep reduces the effect of work stressors such as emotional labor And conflict between work and family on the depressive symptoms of healthcare workers. That is, these job stressors can both directly affect the mental health of healthcare workers and indirectly affect mental health by impairing their sleep.
How can caregivers improve their sleep?
The most common non-drug recommendations to improve sleep for shift workers include scheduling, bright light exposure, naps, sleep hygiene education, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
No concrete evidence is yet available on the best sleep schedule for healthcare workers working night shifts or alternating shifts. However, while most night workers start sleeping during the day shortly after returning home, lab studies in older adults found better night shifts alertness and performance And longer sleep duration with an afternoon-evening sleep schedule.
Based on those findings, my research team currently testing the effectiveness of an afternoon-evening sleep schedule in real-world settings for healthcare workers who regularly work nights. We are also investigating whether such a sleep schedule is acceptable for healthcare professionals and easy enough to integrate into their daily lives.
Workplace is crucial for improving sleep
Building a healthy work environment is a crucial and meaningful way to improve sleep. A large number of work stressors – such as shift work, work demands, lack of social support, workplace risks and negative co-worker behavior – all contribute to poor sleep among healthcare workers.
Evidence-based workplace programs that prevent workplace violence, provide emotional support after difficult incidents, and provide flexible scheduling can all help reduce the underlying issues behind poor sleep. Workplaces can be a integrated approach that both reduces work-related stressors and promotes the sleep and health of their employees. For example, a healthy workplace can allow their employees to choose their own work schedules and provide sleep hygiene training.
In addition, many sleep promotion programs require the workplace to participate. Sleep education requires employer support, and light exposure and sleeping areas require environmental changes in the workspace. Allow employees participate in the decision-making process can encourage them to get involved and take action to improve their own health, which can change the sleep and overall health of workers, especially those in the medical field.