A new study found that more than half of the nurses experienced sleep problems during the first six months of the epidemic, which led to feelings of anxiety as well as depression.
The study was published in the “Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.”
“Nurses are already at risk of developing higher rates of depression and inadequate sleep than other professions, thanks to the stresses of patient care and the nature of shift work. The pandemic appears to have exacerbated these problems at the expense of the nurses’ health — said Amy Witkowski Stempfel, Ph.D., RN D., assistant professor at New York University’s Rory Myers School of Nursing and lead author of the study.
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Nurses have faced unparalleled challenges working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, including staff shortages, early shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and witnessing widespread suffering and death. Research is beginning to reveal the impact of these ongoing stressors on nurses’ mental health and well-being.
In this study, researchers surveyed 629 nurses and interviewed 34 nurses from June through August 2020. The nurses, who worked in various health care settings in 18 states, were asked about their experiences working during the first six months of the pandemic in the United States.
The survey revealed higher rates of depression (22 percent), anxiety (52 percent) and insomnia (55 percent) among nurses. Notably, difficulty sleeping was a contributing factor to mental health and as a result.
Sleeping only five hours or less before the shift increases your odds of developing depression, anxiety, and insomnia. However, the nurses also described how worrying and reflecting on stressful working conditions – staff shortages, redeployment in the Covid unit, lack of personal protective equipment, numerous patient deaths – made it difficult to fall asleep and wake up at night.
In addition to stress-related sleep problems, changes in nurses’ work schedules from either working overtime or abruptly switching between day and night shifts have resulted in nurses getting less sleep.
“We found that sleep problems were intertwined with anxiety and symptoms of depression,” said Witkoski Stimpfel.
“Previous research supports this two-way relationship between sleep and mental health. We know that getting enough sleep enhances mental and emotional resilience, while not getting enough sleep prepares the brain for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability,” Stampville added.
To better support nurses and their well-being, researchers urged employers to take action to address work stress and factors that affect sleep. In addition to ensuring that nurses have the resources such as staff, beds, and personal protective equipment to perform their jobs effectively, employers can offer stress management training and provide referrals to mental health care professionals for those in need.
Employers should also pay attention to scheduling, ensure nurses have time away from work, protect them from excessive overtime and shifts that move quickly between day and night, and offer flexible work arrangements.
“Our findings help us better understand the difficulty that nurses face — and why some nurses leave their jobs or the field altogether — but they also reveal opportunities for hospitals and other employers to support this vital workforce,” said Witkoski Stimpfel.
Additional study authors include Lloyd Goldsmit and Victoria Vaughan Dixon of New York Myers University and Lauren Gazelle of the University of Michigan. The research was supported by a NYU Covid-19 Research Catalyst grant.
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