Health-care workers who have a quiet place to rest on their work breaks reported being significantly less sleepy than those who didn’t have that access, according to new research led by Marian Wilson, Ph.D., of the Washington State University College of Nursing.

Having a quiet place for work breaks had more of an effect on the employees’ perceived sleepiness than did having a formal policy to combat fatigue, Wilson’s research found.

The study was published recently in “Chronobiology International: The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research.”

Dr. Marian Wilson
Marian Wilson, PhD, WSU College of Nursing

Previous research has found that fatigue or insufficient sleep among health-care workers pose a danger to patient safety in the form of medical errors or substandard care.

Wilson’s team surveyed more than 1,200 workers at two hospitals in the Pacific Northwest. One does not have a formal fatigue-mitigation policy for its workers, while the other does. That policy, which is directed toward nursing departments, includes not scheduling workers for more than four 12-hour shifts consecutively and encouraging 20-minute naps for night-shift workers on their meal breaks.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Employees working 12-hour shifts reported the poorest sleep quality;
  • Night-shift workers were less likely than their day-shift counterparts to use their allotted break times;
  • There were few differences between hospitals in employee break-use patterns, despite the formal fatigue-mitigation policy in one, leading Wilson’s group to suggest that staffing levels and workplace culture about taking naps and breaks could also be considered when developing formal policies;
  • Having a quiet place to rest was the most significant factor in self-reported sleepiness. According to the study, “Neither taking a break nor having a break policy supportive of napping may be sufficient to reliably reduce sleepiness in hospital settings, if employees do not have a quiet place to rest.”

Study: “Sleep quality, sleepiness and the influence of workplace breaks: A cross-sectional survey of health-care workers in two US hospitals.” Marian Wilson, Samantha M. Riedy, Maddy Himmel, Ashley English, Joshua Burton, Sandra Albritton, Kelsey Johnson, Patricia Morgan and Hans P.A. Van Dongen.