August 12, 2022

Anyone who works long hours at a high-stress job is susceptible to shift work disorder. The enormous number of people experiencing this phenomenon includes nurses, doctors and other medical professionals.

“There is a lot of drug abuse in this field of work, whether it’s basic prescription drugs to narcotics, to help with sleep. In no way is this healthy nor OK,” said Karen Lucas, a NICU nurse at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont. “Doctors and nurses are the No. 1 field of work to abuse drugs.”  

In Canada, hospital employees often work 12-plus-hour shifts, up to four days in a row. Traditional shift work in nursing includes two 12-hour days and two 12-hour nights, compacted into four days, with a minimum of three 15-minute breaks each shift.

“The state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about your competence and value of work,” is something with which many people who regularly work shifts must contend, said Janel Harris, also a NICU nurse at Grand River Hospital.

Janelle Lolocker and Karen Lucas are NICU nurses at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont., Oct. 3, 2018. Photo by Madison Kroner, Spoke News

“There are pros and cons,” said Brenda Mennard, another NICU nurse at Grand River Hospital. “For instance, the first two days after the shifts are like a severe hangover —  you have no motivation to do anything and feel rundown. After that, it gets easier and you can get things done and spend time with family. It is hard on your body, no question, and is not meant for everyone. It must be a job you love.” 

Researchers at the University of Toronto have been studying shift workers for years, trying to understand what happens to our circadian rhythms and our bodies when we are physically awake but supposed to be asleep. The findings were that shift workers have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Controversy broke out last year when a Belleville, Ont., nurse fell asleep holding an infant, later dropping him and fracturing the skull, according to a report by The National Post.

“Many nurses are working 16-hour shifts and are only able to get three to four hours of sleep before returning,” said sleep therapist John McCain from Collingwood, Ont. “Most healthy adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Sleep directly affects your mental and physical health and quality of your life, productivity, emotional balance, brain and heart health, immune system and even your weight. You can’t have the approach that you can have nurses working 12-20 hour shifts and they’re going to perform to par. That’s not sensible for anyone.”

According to an email,  the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reported that the number of babies in the NICU has increased by 10 per cent in the past year, creating a higher paced and stressful environment. The NICU at almost every hospital in Ontario is reported to be over capacity. Nurses rarely get breaks during their 12-hour shifts due to the high paced environment.

Nurses are extremely important in providing health care to patients, especially since the role and workload have expanded. High-stress jobs with access to potent medications can make nurses vulnerable to use drugs to cope.

Shift work takes many forms but is generally defined as work hours outside of daylight. Apps such as Shiftlife Organizer, available for iOS and Android users, can help shift workers stay organized. Another option is Relax Melodies, an app that acts as a sleeping aid and can help with insomnia. 

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