Stressed young female medical professional sitting on a sofa and taking break from work in hospital, sleep deprivation concept

Sleep Deprivation in Healthcare Workers Leads to Safety Dangers

Stressed young female medical professional sitting on a sofa and taking break from work in hospital, sleep deprivation concept
Are you suffering from lack of sleep symptoms, such as being tired, cranky, and foggy-brained? If so, you’re not alone. The National Sleep Foundation says close to 22 million Americans experience sleep deprivation, and that figure is reportedly increasing each year due to the occupations that require around-the-clock attention. Law enforcement, energy, manufacturing, and healthcare are the top trades with rotating schedules. Studies show that healthcare workers commonly suffer from lack of sleep symptoms, and continued sleep deprivation puts both the workers and their patients at risk.

Lack of sleep can be fatal

Think sleeping a little less won’t hurt anyone? Think again. Studies demonstrate that healthcare professionals in a sleep-restricted state suffer decrements in performance commensurate with those induced by a blood alcohol level of 0.05 to 0.10%. Additionally, physicians in training have self-reported that sleep deprivation resulted in 300% more fatigue-related medical errors that led to a patient’s death. Lack of sleep is very serious!

How much sleep should you be getting?

A minimum of 7 to 8 hours of sleep is recommended in a 24-hour time period, but many healthcare workers only get 5 to 6 hours (or even less) daily.

According to Circadian, four or more nights of partial sleep deprivation with less than 7 hours of sleep is equivalent to a total night of sleep deprivation. And, a single night of total sleep deprivation can affect your functioning for up to two weeks, with wide-ranging physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.

Sleep deprivation symptoms

Symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Heavy eyelids or blurred vision
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Poor concentration and confusion
  • Decreased problem-solving capabilities
  • Irritable mood
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Feeling stressed and anxious
  • Body aches
  • Constipation
  • Wrinkles start appearing with visible dark spots under the eyes
  • Weight gain
  • Memory loss
  • In extreme cases, lack of sleep symptoms include hallucinations and psychoses

Additionally, sleep-deprived individuals are at a high risk for developing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and are more likely to die from a heart attack.

Working long shifts increases dangers to patients

Studies have demonstrated that working long hours poses risks to both healthcare providers and their patients. According to The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, nurses working greater than 12.5 to 13 consecutive hours report:

  • a 1.9- to 3.3- fold increased odds of making an error in patient care;
  • a significantly increased risk of suffering a needlestick injury, exposing them to an increased risk of acquiring hepatitis, HIV, or other bloodborne illnesses; and
  • a significant decrease in vigilance on the job.

Likewise, physicians in training working long hours have been found to be at greatly increased risk of injuring their patients or themselves. Research has demonstrated that physicians in training working traditional schedules with recurrent 24-hour shifts:

  • make 36% more serious medical errors than those whose scheduled work is limited to 16 consecutive hours;
  • make five times as many serious diagnostic errors;
  • have twice as many on-the-job attentional failures at night;
  • suffer 61% more needlestick and other sharp injuries after their 20th consecutive hour of work; and
  • double their risk of a motor vehicle crash when driving home after 24 hours of work.

Top 8 dangers of sleep deprivation in healthcare workers

The dangers of sleep deprivation are clear. When workers do not get enough sleep, their circadian rhythms become imbalanced; thus, performance deteriorates. Sleep deprived healthcare professionals experience:

  1. Decreased communication skills
  2. Slower response time
  3. Increased risk of becoming distracted
  4. Driving impairments
  5. Increased number of errors
  6. Poor cognitive assimilation and memory
  7. Inappropriate mood behaviors (irritability, outbursts, apathy)
  8. Greater risk-taking behavior

The bottom line: When you as a healthcare worker are sleep deprived, your productivity levels and quality of work will be compromised. You will be creating an environment where it is not a matter of if your patients will be harmed, but a matter of when, and to what magnitude. So, make sure you are getting enough sleep!

Strategies to get enough sleep

Here are several strategies to prevent sleep deprivation:

  • Try to go to bed and wake at the same time each night/day.
  • Use the hour before falling asleep to rest. Stay off of cell phones, tablets or computers as the lights can impact your circadian rhythm.
  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol before bed.
  • Be physically active during the day.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet and dark.
  • Try taking a hot bath 1 hour to 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Take 3 mg of a melatonin supplement 1 hour before bed.
  • Drink decaffeinated lavender tea at night.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight during waking hours. For those who work night shifts, try using a light therapy box.
  • Cut back on sugar.
  • If stress or anxiety keeps you awake, consider talking with a counselor and learn stress management techniques to incorporate in your daily routine.


  1. National Sleep Foundation
  2. The Joint Commission Journal of Quality and Patient Safety

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on our sister site, HomeCEU. It has been edited slightly.