Nurse, Heal Thyself!

By Julia Worrall RN

I have been a nurse for over 20 years. And I’ve been exhausted just as long.

Unfortunately I am not alone. Nurses are called upon  to be superheroes…impervious to niggly details like hunger, pain, sadness and fatigue. 

We keep going. I mean what choice do we have? As the years go by we become crusty and curt, a ‘Nurse Ratched’ if you will.  But we keep showing up. Putting aside our fatigue to care for you because, for the most part, in our profession the need for sleep is considered a character flaw…only for the weak. A ‘good’  nurse can churn out shift after shift, even on minimal sleep, because we will never abandon you, our patient. 

Patience with our Patients

We know that hospitalization can be one of the most physically and psychologically stressful events in one’s life, and that this stress has the potential to reduce our patients’ sleep quality, impair recovery and delay discharge. Because patients notoriously complain about the noise we make at the nursing station, their roommates’ snoring, and about how hard it is to get a good night’s sleep, we hand out sleep aids like candy. 

Understandably then, this legitimate concern has made nurses experts at teaching their patients about sleep, sleep hygiene and sleep disorders. 


Wrong! How I wish this were true, but in general nurses consider sleep promotion a very low priority in their busy practice. Might the shocking fact that the typical nursing student receives just an average of 60 minutes of education about sleep during their entire 4-year program have anything to do with it?

Yes, SIXTY MINUTES. Think about that…. We spend a grand total of one hour discussing what occurs during ONE-THIRD of our patients’ lives! 

No wonder nurses do not place a high priority on sleep! Nurses consider insufficient sleep knowledge as a major barrier to effective sleep management in the clinical setting. In addition, they view discussions about sleep with their patients to be impractical due to a perceived lack of time.

Since nursing is considered to be the most trusted profession, and nurses are the largest group of healthcare professionals, are we not perfectly positioned to effect change for both our patients and ourselves?

Nurses who adopt healthy behaviours themselves act as positive role models. In fact, nurses who enjoy higher quality sleep are more knowledgeable about sleep in general, have a positive attitude toward sleep hygiene, and are much more likely to broach this important subject with their patients.

So before we can address the sleep health of our patients, we need to address our own sleep. 

Nurse, Heal Thyself! 

Many times I have reported for a shift only to hear the nurses lamenting their extreme sleep deficits. We wear our sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. This is foolhardy and explains the lack of resiliency that is creeping into our profession. It is hard to be compassionate toward our patients while we are exhausted, yet managing a never-ceasing flow of patients through our department. Sadly, it is our own lackadaisical attitudes about sleep, our own habits, that are harming our patients. 

It is true that we are pressed in every way for time, but how fantastic would it be if we could have a dedicated Sleep Technologist/Educator to provide inservice training for nurses and to be a resource for the inevitable sleep issues our patients face once admitted? Those issues, in fact, often the root cause of why they are admitted. 

My dream for the future is that sleep education be extensively taught to nurses and that Sleep Techs/Educators be an integral part of the in-hospital multidisciplinary team.  

As the world’s attention turns to consider that occult one-third of our lives, I call upon nurses to collaborate with the sleep educators to discuss strategies for helping  patients’ achieve a solid eight or so hours of restful life-enhancing sleep. 

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