Probably every worker has experienced that afternoon slump or has needed a cup of coffee to get through the last hour behind the desk. However, nurses have it particularly difficult because of the great physical and mental burdens they carry throughout each shift. Stressful work situations, busy shifts during which there is no time to sit down and 12-hour night shifts that leave nurses yawning and nodding off on the drive home combine to create a real problem.

In fact, a 2017 Kronos Incorporated survey of registered nurses showed some startling statistics. Of those nurses working in hospitals, 85 percent reported feeling fatigued, 63 percent reported feeling as if they had burned out and 44 percent reported worrying that they were too tired to provide high-quality patient care.

According to the American Nurses Association, “Inadequate sleep and resulting fatigue has major implications on the health and safety of registered nurses and can compromise patient care.” Clearly, it is not just the nurse who will suffer from a foggy brain. Patients can suffer when nurses forget important care tasks, accidentally give the wrong drugs or misidentify patients.

Fatigue tends to have a cumulative effect for nurses, particularly for those working night shifts or rotating shifts. While nurses may get only one hour less of sleep each night between shifts than they would on non-work days, by the end of the week, this adds up to quite a large sleep debt. This can be even more problematic for older nurses who already suffer from fragmented sleep.

Studies have shown the many mental and physical dangers of fatigue on nurses. For example, nurses may see the following mental issues exacerbated after even a few nights of poor sleep. With weeks, months and years of limited sleep under their belts, problems may grow even worse.

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Inability to recall information
  • Errors of omission and commission

Equally disturbing are the many physical symptoms that can be tied to fatigue.

  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Digestive issues
  • Increased risk of miscarriage

While long shifts and draining work may be something from which nurses cannot extricate themselves, there are some steps nurses and other health care workers can take to fight off fatigue and its negative effects.

1. Practice regular self-care. Taking time to pour back into your mind and body in between shifts can improve your strength and resilience.

2. Set boundaries at and away from work. Know how much you can work and when you need to say no to working that extra shift.

3. Take up fulfilling pursuits away from work. Find a hobby, or get involved in new social endeavors at your church or in your community.

4. Use your vacation time. Take time to get far away from work.

5. Find someone safe with whom you can talk. A mentor can help you work through difficult emotions.

While fatigue seems to be quite common for nurses, it should not be thought of as normal, healthy or safe. In fact, it can become quite dangerous in many circumstances. Be aware of how fatigued you are, and look for ways that you can rest and relax when away from work.