Wake-up call: Research reveals toll of poor sleep on health care workers

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5 'Harmless' Habits That Are Disrupting Your Sleep

One study showed sleep deprived workers 70% more likely to report anxiety

It’s no secret the coronavirus pandemic is taking a serious toll on health care workers. Recent surveys have found a high percentage of nurses are considering quitting their profession over the strain COVID-19 has put on their workplace and on themselves.

A couple of studies by researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center have quantified the pandemic’s effects on health care workers’ sleep patterns and the potential damage to their mental health.

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“Right now, a large percentage of health care workers are leaving their jobs because of the stress, producing a shortage of health care workers nationally,” said Marwah Abdalla, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and author of the most recent study. “With fewer workers on the job, the remaining staff must work more and longer shifts, exacerbating their sleep problems and stress.”

Abdalla’s study found health care workers with poor sleep were twice as likely to report symptoms of depression than their better-rested colleagues, and were 50% more likely to report psychological distress and 70% more likely to report anxiety.

According to a university release published on sciencedaily.com, Abdalla, a cardiologist at the medical center, formed a team to study health care workers’ reactions to stress, with a special emphasis on the pandemic’s effects on sleep.

During the pandemic’s first peak in New York City, she and her colleagues conducted a series of surveys of sleep habits and psychological symptoms. The group’s first paper, published in August, summarized the sleep data, which showed more than 70% of health care workers had at least moderate insomnia symptoms during that first peak. Also, nearly 4 in 10 still suffered from insomnia symptoms 10 weeks later, when the first wave had passed and work schedules had returned to more normal levels.

“We know that lack of sleep degrades quality of care for our patients and can increase medical errors,” Abdalla said.

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In the second study, the researchers found that health care workers who reported poor sleep also reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than health care workers who slept better.

“(S)leep is essential to mental health and there is a bidirectional relationship,” Abdalla said in the release. “While we don’t know from this study if psychological distress itself caused poor sleep or if poor sleep resulted in psychological distress among these health care workers, improving sleep can reduce psychological problems and vice versa.”

Abdalla suggested interventions that might help health care workers, including cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia to installing nap pods.

“For people who might be sleep deprived, encourage them to go and lie down for 20 minutes or 30 minutes,” she said.

“Previous research has shown that sleep trouble increases your risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and cancer,” Abdalla concluded. “If you have trouble sleeping, let this be a wake-up call.”

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