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Health Care Workers are Experiencing More Insomnia Amid COVID-19

— May 12, 2021

Health care workers say their sleep as gone downhill due to COVID-19.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests the coronavirus pandemic is associated with a 44% increase in insomnia among health care workers at a medical-school affiliated health system.   The survey was conducted on May 15, 2020, and participants were asked to think back to their work duties two weeks prior to when the COVID-19 infections began to increase, as well as two weeks before the survey was taken.

The survey included 678 faculty physicians, nurses and advanced practice providers (i.e., nurse practitioners and physician assistants, residents and fellows).  The authors reported, “44.5% reported having insomnia prior to the start of the pandemic.  The pandemic increased that rate to 64%.”

According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of insomnia include, “difficulty falling asleep at night, waking up during the night; waking up too early; not feeling well-rested after a night’s sleep; daytime tiredness or sleepiness; irritability, depression or anxiety; difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks or remembering; and increased errors or accidents.”  The effects of insomnia included fatigue, depression, and gastrointestinal problems, and anxiety, among others, the survey results indicated.  “More than half the individuals” reported “at least one core symptom of depression and at least one anxiety symptom.”

Health Care Workers are Experiencing More Insomnia Amid COVID-19
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

“Insomnia disorder is a patient complaint of poor sleep either in quantity or quality, it can be both, with daytime consequences of their poor sleep,” said Vaughn McCall, MD. “They suffer in the daytime because of the nighttime.”

The highest rates of insomnia were found among those not involved in direct patient care.  However, the team also noted that most participants who spent 30 or more hours each week in this line of work were, on average, younger than those who didn’t, and the risk for sleep disorders increases with age.

“If you work from home, there is a risk that your sleep is going to fall apart because you don’t have your schedule anymore,” McCall said. “Most people don’t self-regulate well.”

A recent Ohio State University College of Nursing study also found that critical care nurses with compromised physical and mental health reported significantly more medical errors than those in good health.  The study, conducted before the onset of COVID-19, found that “nurses who perceived that their worksite was very supportive of their well-being were twice as likely to have better physical health.”  The research team published their findings in the American Journal of Critical Care.  This could, in part, suggest that healthcare workers experiencing compassion fatigue and insomnia make more errors on the job.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought on many changes that could have an impact on sleep, including having to care for children who are home, trying to work in the same spaces as other family members, and attempting to manage uncertainty.  Uncertainty and social isolation can cause disrupted sleep patterns, and insufficient sleep is associated with significantly detrimental health effects, especially if experienced over an extended period of time.


Pandemic significantly increases insomnia in health care workers 

Short-term insomnia disorder in health care workers in an academic medical center before and during COVID-19: rates and predictive factors

Study: Nurses’ physical, mental health connected to preventable medical errors

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