Don’t Let the Graveyard Shift Bury The Nurse and Their Patients Part II: The Effects of Shift Work on Patients

After being introduced to the negative effects shift work has on those who work them, part two of this series brings us to the other group affected by shift work: patients. The effects a lack of sleep and circadian disruption have on nurses not only affect their bodies, they also affect how they interact with their patients. Forgetfulness, inattentiveness, and mistakes occur commonly when the body is under stress like this, and the results for those depending on professional care can be lethal.


  • Decreased Attention and Memory: One of the great problems with shift work is that it can decrease attention, something that can have grave results when dealing with patients in serious medical conditions. Some researchers believe that shift work is one of the main factors associated with medical errors, while other report it creates short-term memory disturbances related to circadian rhythm disruption.[1] Not remembering a patient’s allergies or not noticing a severe reaction to a drug can lead to severe complications, or worse.
  • Lack of Sleep: When working night shifts, individuals obtain one to four hours less sleep than normal.[2] This has monumental consequences, seeing as several studies have confirmed that drug administration errors, incorrect operation of medical equipment, and needle-stick injuries are associated with a lack of sleep.[3] On a similar note, one study found that two-thirds of the nurses studied reported struggling to stay awake on duty, and 35.5% of nurses who alternate between day and night shifts fell asleep during night shift at least once a week.[4] If regular sleep patterns aren’t maintained, which they frequently are not in shift workers, alertness and proficiency go by the wayside, and mistakes get made.
  • Decreased Safety: The cognitive impairment observed in shift work studies has consequences for society as a whole.[5] In a 2014 study, participants who worked night shifts scored lower in tests assessing memory, processing speed, and overall brain power than participants working daytime hours.[6] Every year, more than 1,500 fatalities, 100,000 crashes, and 76,000 injuries are attributed to fatigue-related drowsiness on the highway, costing the U.S. an estimated $18 billion annually.[7] Though these accidents are not caused solely by night-shift medical professionals, many of them are, and many more will continue to occur if efforts are not made to improve the shift worker situation.


Clearly, shift work affects multiple communities negatively, whether immediately or long term. What can be done to combat these risks? Part three will focus upon solutions that can improve the situation of shift workers and keep more lives out of danger.