Nurses need longer breaks between work shifts

Long hours and lack of sleep are among the biggest complaints of nurses, but a new study indicates those nurses also face serious health problems if they don't have enough time to rest between work shifts.

The study published in the journal Clinical Nursing Studies finds that quick turnaround between work shifts may be hazardous to nurses' health. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland studied 39 female nurses with a mean age of 45 who worked shifts in municipal hospitals to determine whether longer rest and recovery periods between work shifts would have an effect on heart rate variability, which is an indicator of recovery.

Shift work can increase the risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular diseases-- a risk partially caused by insufficient recovery from work, which interferes with the normal function of the autonomic nervous system regulating heart function and blood pressure.

Nurses who have fewer than 11 hours of rest between working a night and morning shift, for instance, have too little time to recover from work, the researchers said. At the start of the study, researchers reduced by half the number of shifts nurses worked with less than an 11-hour break. The researchers surveyed the nurses and recorded heart variability rates to measure their recovery from work before the shift changes and after one year. They recorded rates while the nurses were on duty, off duty and during sleep.

Giving the nurses longer periods of time between work shifts enhanced their recovery, the results showed. Positive changes during sleep reflected their recovery from stress. A so-called forward-rotating shift system--in which a shift is always followed by one that begins later, such as a morning shift followed by a night shift--leaves sufficient time for recovery and promotes nurses' well-being, the researchers found.

The study is not the first to show that rotating night shift work can put nurses' health in jeopardy. Earlier this year, a study found nurses working those shifts have an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease as well as lung cancer. Some U.S. hospitals, trying to reduce the likelihood of fatigue among nurses, have also found the use of buddy systems and "flex nurses" to help cover flexible shifts, are ways to prevent exhaustion.

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the study announcement

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