As frontline healthcare workers at the center of the battle against COVID-19, nurses are facing more challenges than ever—and many are struggling to get the sleep they need. Over a year into the pandemic, it’s no surprise that over 60% of nurses say they suffer from poor sleep, per a 2020 meta-analysis published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
That’s a lot of sleep-deprived nurses. And when you’re low on shut-eye, you’re not only putting yourself at increased risk of health issues, injury, or accidents. You could also make mistakes that endanger patients or other drivers if you’re feeling drowsy on the way home.
In such high-demand times, it’s normal to struggle to prioritize sleep or “turn off” when you’re working overtime and laser-focused on safety to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. But while sleep often falls to the wayside first, getting the rest you need is a must for everyone’s wellbeing.
If you’re feeling the need to refill your cup, you’re not alone. Learn more about the unique sleep issues nurses face and ways you can begin to get better sleep.
Nurses and sleep deprivation
The link between a nursing career and sleep deprivation has concerned health experts for decades. Before COVID-19, nurses around the world were already experiencing high levels of fatigue, burnout, and poor sleep.
In particular, the night shift can cut one to four hours of sleep each day. Disrupted sleep can zap your mood and motivation, up depression and irritability, increase your risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and knock your ability to stay sharp—or awake—for the job. In fact, about a third of nurses who work nights report falling asleep at work at least once a week, according to one survey.
Now, with increased workloads, fears of being exposed to the virus or bringing it home, and fewer opportunities for recovery, many nurses say they’re having even more trouble squeezing in enough Z’s.
“My sleep quality has definitely been impacted by COVID,” says Alaina Ross, RN, a full-time registered nurse. Since many of her coworkers decided to retire early following the emergence of the virus, she’s taken on about eight extra hours of work each week, including some 14-hour days and nights on-call.
Wracked with exhaustion and stress as a healthcare provider and mother, she often struggles to fall asleep. “I’m likely being overprotective and worrying too much, but nothing scares me more than accidentally transmitting COVID to my baby boy,” she says. “This has definitely caused some sleepless nights as I fret over close calls I had at work.”
Catherine Burger, RN, an occupational health and infection control nurse for a large health center, says her pre-COVID sleep was “effortless.” But that changed when she became responsible for protecting healthcare workers screening for the disease.
After her daughter, an emergency medical technician (EMT) fell ill, she hardly slept for a week. “The worry for my healthcare worker children and colleagues weighs heavily on my mind,” she says.
When you’re in the thick of it, it’s often difficult to gauge just how much sleep deprivation is affecting you. To avoid this problem, take some advice from other nurses and prioritize your sleep from now on.
Tips to help nurses get better sleep
Here are a few tried-and-true tips you can use to get better sleep.
Prime your space for sleep
First, make sure your environment is conducive to good sleep. This is especially important if you’re working the night shift and fighting off-kilter circadian rhythms.
“A big part of setting the mood for sleep especially during the day is to replicate the same environment I would have at night,” says Briggette Glymph, RN, a registered nurse at a surgery center.
How to do that: Put your phone on do not disturb (as long as you’re not on call!), purchase blackout curtains or a sleep mask to keep your bedroom pitch dark, and use a white noise machine to cover up outside noises that could wake you up like leaf blowers or traffic, she says. Finally, turn up the A/C—a chill 60 to 67 degrees is best for supporting sleep, per the National Sleep Foundation.
Use caffeine to your advantage
A cup or two of a caffeinated bev like coffee can help you up your alertness and power through the first three to four hours of your shift. But to avoid becoming overly alert (and wrecking your sleep when your shift’s over), schedule a time to stop taking in caffeine at least three hours before bed. For her part, Burger quits drinking coffee around 2 p.m. when she’s working the day shift.
Add a wind-down routine
To ease stress and soften the transition from your workday to sleepytime, adopt a regular and predictable bedtime ritual, even if it’s only five to 10 minutes of self-care. Ross suggests breathing in essential oils such as lavender.
“I don’t know whether it is a placebo effect or not, but I now swear by running the diffuser for 20 minutes before bed,” she says. For what it’s worth, research does suggest that lavender can help ease stress and anxiety and even increase time spent in restorative deep sleep.
Another option: Glymph says taking a nice hot bath instead of her go-to shower helps her relax after particularly hectic shifts.
Improve your sleep with these Saatva mattresses
Treat yourself to a mattress upgrade
Work-related aches and pains keeping you up? A more comfortable mattress for your sleeping position could make a big difference. For Ross, who tends to sleep hot and on her back, a new temperature-regulated king-size mattress has “definitely helped” thanks to more space to sprawl out and a mattress topper made with light and airy fabric.
But it’s important to test out your options to find out what works best for you. During colder winter months, Burger recommends a heated mattress pad which may help soothe sore joints.
Consider sleep aids
Working nights bathed in bright, artificial light can disrupt your body’s production of melatonin, the most important hormone for regulating a normal sleep-wake cycle. In turn, it’s common to develop shift work-related sleep problems, like grogginess while on the job and trouble falling asleep once you’re off the clock. One potential fix is sleep supplements.
Burger and Glymph both say they occasionally take melatonin or Benadryl (diphenhydramine). To determine the best solution, dosage, and timing for your needs, talk to your doctor.
Listen to your body and know your limits
“What works for me to improve my sleep is being in tune with myself to know when I’m overly burdened,” says Burger. According to the American Nurses Association, you need a minimum of seven hours of rest per day. A sleep tracking app could help you determine whether you’re hitting that target regularly.
On shifts when you’re feeling fatigued or foggy, ask your coworkers for help with important tasks, consider brief naps of 45 minutes or less during breaks, and if you’re at risk of falling asleep on the road, use public transportation or a ride-hailing app to ensure you (and those around you) make it home safe.
Finally, keep in mind that the longer and more stacked your shifts are, the greater your risk of injuries and accidents—so schedule time off. During these immensely challenging times, it’s easy to put your health on the back burner to stay strong for your team and patients—but getting the rest you need is one of the best ways you can ward off burnout. Nurses with decades of experience will also tell you it’s essential for a long and satisfying career.
Are you a nurse who has trouble sleeping? Learn about our discount for nurses and how it can help you achieve the sleep you need to perform your best on the job.