Shift Work and Sleep Deprivation


As a nurse I have worked double shifts and those very long 12 hour shifts. I have always struggled with working night shifts since I have a hard time sleeping during the day.  Getting to sleep even after working an 8 hour shift 3 -11 was difficult and took time to come down from the hectic pace of a nurses shift.

It is well known that the disruption in sleep patterns make it difficult to get a restful sleep and will affect the way you function.  Nurses are at risk for shift work disorder due to the many shifts we tend to work.  Working longer than 8 hours or rotating shifts can put you at risk of suffering these effects.

Not every person is wired the same so you may not be one who will suffer from the disruption.  You however need to be aware of the cause and the symptoms so you can make changes if necessary to avoid further disruption.

What are the risks

My last job was night on call nurse for hospice.  My shift was from 5 pm to 8 am and I covered call from home.  This job was very difficult since I was allowed to sleep but had to be ready to answer and triage calls and visit if needed.  My night could be one with only a couple  of calls to one of working 15 hours straight.

Nurses who rotate shifts frequently or are on multiple nights to day duty may loose the ability to focus. I would find that my memory would become fuzzy so I had to make notes to keep information straight.  I found at times it was hard to focus.

We all know that sleep loss can be a cause of depression and memory impairment.  When I lost sleep I was irritable and found it difficult to be patient with my patients.  When you don’t get the proper amount of sleep the body and the mind begin to fail to function properly.  The military have done studies to find what amount of sleep is needed for a person to be able to function normally.  The minimum amount of sleep needed is at least 4 hours of Rim sleep to be able to maintain mental stability in high stress environments.

Physical effects

Loss of sleep can also affect you physically.  Cardiovascular issues, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, diabetes are al chronic issues that can result from chronic sleep loss. Let us not forget that sleep loss ages us, puffy red eyes with dark circles and dull skin are signs of sleep disruption.

Loss of libido may result from lack of energy, frustration and stress affecting the mood.  There are studies that show lack of sleep can lead to lowered libido in both men and women. Sleep disorders in men may affect testosterone levels causing an actual decrease.

Of course weight gain is a concern.  Being tired and low energy leads to fast food eating.  How many nights did I stop at the golden arches to grab a bite because was too tired to cook or go to the grocery store.  Exercise was not even a consideration after pulling a 15 hour shift.


Tragically so many car accidents are caused by sleep deprived drivers.  On the job injuries are caused by exhausted workers. Lack of sleep is the equivalent of driving impaired and is considered a public safety hazard.  Statistics show every year approximately 100,000 auto collisions in the U.S.  are the result of sleepiness.

Our internal clock

Our bodies have an internal clock that lets us know when we should be awake or asleep.  When we disrupt that clock and find it difficult to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep we may develop shift work sleep disorder. After spending 12 hours of work, you would assume that falling to sleep and staying there would be as simple as closing your eyes. Yet it is not that easy for many nurses. Despite the body’s craving for a good 8-hour rest, it may be too wound up to get there.

If your sleep deprivation starts by not being able to drift off, one of these techniques may help:

  • Take a hot bath or shower to relax tense muscles and help to slowly lull your body into a tranquil state. Try using scented  lavender soap to relax the mind and get to sleep.
  • I like to diffuse essential oils at my bedside to help me drift to sleep. Lavender is the most popular but there are special blends that can be used as well.
  • Read a short story since a simple short story is just the right length to take your mind away from work and into dreamland.  The bright colors of TV stimulate the brain and can make sleep elusive.
  • Eat light you don’t want to go to sleep on an empty stomach, but a big meal could cause you gastric distress that wakes you up in the middle of the night.
  • Darken your room with darke curtains.  A dark room is a must if you have difficulty falling asleep.  Make sure to unplug nightlights and charge your cell phone upside down.
  • Avoid the temptation to have a caffeinated drink.  Stop the coffee and cola drinks at least 4 hours before the end of your shift. Caffeine will cause disruptions in the much-needed REM sleep.
  • Remove distractions and make sure to turn off your phone, radio, laptop, or any device that can permeate your consciousness as you sleep.
  • Keep your room cool, I know I sleep better in a cooler room versus a hot room. I prefer a comfy blanket to snuggle under and keep the temp at 69 degrees.
  • No drinking before lights out.  Contrary to belief alcohol can and will cause you to wake during your sleep so best to not use it for sleep.
  • Set your alarm clock to relieve the pressure of worrying about waking on time and prevent you from getting to sleep.

Try these tricks

If you use one or all of these tricks you can count on at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep.  When you get the right amount of sleep you can avoid work shift sleep disorder.  You will be able to start your day fresh and focused on the job at hand.

If none of these tricks help you to develop a good sleeping pattern you should consider speaking to a professional. Sleep is vital to good health and you may need medical intervention to get your body back on the right track.

As a travel nurse you may find that the moving from job to job and shift to shift you will need to develop a plan that will work for you.  You want to be energetic and focused for each new position you start in your travels.  Let us know how you manage your sleep work life.


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Cheryl Roby, RN

Cheryl J. Roby is a Registered Nurse and retired US Army Reserve Nurse Major. She has more than 30 years of nursing experience and 26 years of military experience in the Army Nurse Corp. During her nursing career, she has traveled as part of her military experience visiting many of the 50 states and to South Korea. She was trained as an Army Medic during the Vietnam era and later as an OR tec. She went on to become a Licensed Practical Nurse and then completed her nursing training as a Registered Nurse. She was then commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserves. She appreciated the challenge of working in various specialties and expanding her clinical and professional skill sets. Her time in the Army Reserves and California National Guard gave her the opportunity to travel to most of the 50 states and work in other medical facilities. During her career, she had the opportunity to work in several specialties to include, OR, Occupational Health, Hospice, Sexual Assault Team, Forensic/ Correctional Nurse, Nurse Case Manager for developmental disabilities, Parish Nursing as well as a Nurse Entrepreneur.

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