How can nurses and other healthcare workers deal with fatigue at work?

Q:

How can nurses and other healthcare workers deal with fatigue on the job?

A:

Fatigue is a serious safety concern that can affect workers in nearly any sector or industry. There are two types of fatigue:

  • Acute fatigue results from short-term sleep loss or short periods of heavy physical or mental work. It can be managed with sleep and relaxation
  • Chronic fatigue is a constant and severe state of tiredness. Rest cannot relieve it and the symptoms (which are similar to the flu) can last six months or more

Research shows that workers who have slept less than five hours or have been awake for more than 16 hours are at significantly increased risk for making mistakes. In fact, one study reports that the effects of fatigue can be similar to increased blood alcohol levels.

The impacts of fatigue include:

  • Reduced mental and physical functioning
  • Impaired judgement and concentration
  • Lowered motivation
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Increased risk-taking behavior

Fatigue is of particular concern for nurses and other healthcare workers who frequently work long shifts with little rest. Research suggests that nearly 20% of serious incidents or negative patient outcomes can be attributed to fatigue.

So, how can you combat it?

Get Sufficient Rest

With patient demands and staff shortages, it may be tempting to shorten your break or skip it altogether. Resist that temptation. Your break is a time for you to rest, recover, and eat. Take the time you are allotted and use it to its fullest.

Fuel Your Body Properly

It’s important to ensure that your body has enough fuel to run on. This means filling it with nourishing foods and drinks.

During mealtimes, opt for higher protein, (good) fats, and moderate carbs. The protein and fats will keep you full longer than a carb-heavy meal would. There are lots of great, healthy protein bars for snacks that can give your body what it needs. But be sure to avoid those that are full of sugar and offer little in the way of real nutrients.

Decline Work Assignments if Necessary

You are not under any obligation to pick up extra shifts or engage in work (or non-work) activities if it isn’t in your best interest. Healthcare workers have an ethical obligation to maintain their fitness to practice, and if you require time off to address the onset of fatigue, it’s okay not to take on more work than you can handle.

Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Fatigue

Monitor yourself and respond to signs of personal fatigue. Keep an eye on your coworkers, too. If you see one who may be experiencing fatigue, speak up.

(Learn more in 7 Signs of Fatigue and How It Affects the Workplace)

Take Care of Yourself When Off the Job

Engage in self-care rituals while on your personal time to relax and rejuvenate. Make sure you get sufficient sleep so that you’re well rested upon starting your next shift. And don’t forget about vacation time! If you have it, use it - even if it’s just for a staycation.

Have a question? Ask Jessica here.

View all questions from Jessica Barrett.

Share this:
Written by Jessica Barrett
Profile Picture of Jessica Barrett

Jessica is a freelance writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. She specializes in creating content for nonprofits and has written for organizations working in human rights, conservation, education, and health care. She loves traveling and food, speaks Spanish, and has two dogs, one of whom she rescued while living in Mexico.

  Full Bio