The Dangers Of Sleep Deprivation – And What It Means For Nurses

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

Sleep deprivation is a real problem in America. Americans are getting less sleep than ever – approximately 6.8 hours on average, according to This is below the recommended physician average of 7-8 hours of sleep per day.

The statistics behind the truly sleep deprived are even more shocking – approximately 30 percent of American adults are sleep deprived, according to Medical Daily. Many Americans simply cannot get enough sleep due to the demands of their jobs, families, and other factors.

Sleep deprivation is also extremely common among nurses – especially those working night shifts. It’s estimated by an NCBI study that night shift nurses got approximately 1-4 fewer hours of sleep per week when working night shifts, as opposed to day shifts, and nearly 1 in 5 nurses reported having difficulty staying awake at night when taking care of a patient.

To help raise awareness of the dangers of sleep deprivation, we’ve put together some shocking statistics on the effects of failing to get enough sleep.

Driving While Sleep Deprived Can Be As Dangerous As Drunk Or Distracted Driving

This may be the most shocking statistics of all. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, sleep deprivation has an extreme effect on the risk of automotive accidents.

Individual drivers who slept 5-6 hours or fewer in a 24 hours period were found to have a 2x the risk of being in an accident, as opposed to those who got their recommended daily requirement of sleep.

This trend continues, the more sleep-deprived a driver gets. Drivers who got 4-5 hours of sleep were 4x as likely to be involved in an accident. This is very close to the risks of drunk drivers.

In addition, about 20% of all fatal auto accidents have been shown in previous AAA studies to have involved drowsy drivers. Clearly, driving drowsy is a serious problem. AAA recommends avoiding sleep deprivation as much as possible, should you have to drive, and restoring yourself to your baseline rest levels by taking naps and catching up on your sleep during the day.

Sleep Deprivation Reduces Judgement And Concentration

We’ve all been there. You’re working a double shift, you only slept 5 hours the night before. Now you’re standing in a patient’s room looking at their chart – and you can barely understand the what you’re looking at. The words are there and seem to make sense – but you just can’t make heads or tails of the information on the page.

Sleep deprivation reduces your ability to concentrate and understand information and impairs your judgment. Sleep deprived nurses aren’t able to provide top-notch care, and in emergency situations, they can be a big risk to patient outcomes.

We know – sometimes you don’t have a choice but to come to work tired. But we suggest that you make up that lack of sleep ASAP – doing so will help prevent “sleep debt”, (which we’ll look at next) and allow you to be able to focus on your tasks.

Extended Periods Of Sleep Deprivation Build Up “Sleep Debt”, Increase Risk Of Disease

Sleep debt is a relatively new concept. The idea is simple. If you don’t sleep enough – say, 5-6 hours a night – your body won’t just stop needing rest.

Instead, a “debt” will build up. If you need 7 hours of sleep a night and only get 6 per night for a week, you’ve built up 7 hours of sleep debt – and until you sleep for 7 extra hours, your mental state, cognitive function, and body will all suffer negative consequences.

Sleep debt can correlate to increased risks of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, because it interferes with the natural restorative power of sleep that our bodies require to stay healthy.

So if you do have to go for several days without proper sleep, don’t just ignore your need for rest. Calculate how much sleep debt you have gained, and try to take naps, sleep longer, and get your rest where you can to eliminate your sleep debt. You will be happier, healthier, and more able to perform your nursing duties – without interference from tiredness.

Don’t Neglect Your Sleep – Stay Safe, And Stay Healthy

We know that nurses often prioritize their work over their health. But how can you deliver great care if you’re tired, if you can’t think straight, or if you are having difficulties concentrating?
A bit of sleep deprivation is normal for nurses. But pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you feel exhausted, fuzzy, and lightheaded, these are all signs that you could be dangerously overtired.

So, when you can, prioritize your rest. Your health will improve, your quality of care will increase, and you will feel better – even on the days when you have to pull a double, or work the night shift.

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.


  1. This is SO important!! I wholeheartedly believe this though still end up frequently in “sleep debt” 🙁
    I think this is one of those little known dangers of poor self-care.
    I’d like to do a professional presentation on it, but though I’ve heard of it for about ten years I haven’t found reliable sources for the data/studies…maybe you can help me find them?


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