Healthy Caregivers Are Important to Your Health Care

Jan 14, 2014, 1:00 PM, Posted by

Karen A. Daley, PhD, RN, FAAN, is president of the American Nurses Association. This post kicks off the “Health Care in 2014” series, in which health leaders, as well as Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholars, grantees, and alumni share their New Year’s resolutions for our health care system and their priorities for action this year.

With so much attention focused these days on our health care system, it may not have occurred to you that the health of your own caregivers could also help determine the quality and safety of the care you receive.

Paying attention to things like getting enough rest, managing fatigue and work/life stress, living tobacco-free, taking advantage of preventive immunizations and exams, eating nutritionally and maintaining an active lifestyle and healthy weight are important for everyone. Unfortunately, nurses are often so busy caring for others that they fail to care for themselves. It is for this reason the American Nurses Association, which represents the interests of the nation's 3.1 million registered nurses (RNs), recently launched a Healthy Nurse™ program to promote healthier lifestyles and behaviors among nurses.

We know from research that healthy nurses are better role models, educators, and advocates.  As the country's most trusted profession for the 12th consecutive year, nurses have the power to positively influence millions of individuals and communities to make healthier choices. In addition, nurses who care for themselves and make a healthy lifestyle a personal priority are better equipped to care for you.

One example I can use to demonstrate the impact a healthy lifestyle can have on the quality and safety of your care relates to nurses and other providers getting adequate sleep. Healthy sleep is defined as at least seven hours of restorative, comfortable rest every day. The benefits of adequate sleep include heightened alertness, better judgment and ability to concentrate, higher levels of energy, positive mood, and improved learning.

Findings from one study conducted by a nurse researcher from the University of Pennsylvania indicate that nurses who slept less than seven hours in a 24-hour period reported that they struggled to stay awake and alert during a work shift, which increases the potential for adverse effects on patient safety. In the same study, nurses reporting six or less hours of sleep in the 24 hours prior to their shift had an increased risk of making an error. Less than five hours of sleep was associated with increased sleepiness and impaired performance on cognitive tasks.

There is evidence to suggest that overtime shifts and extended work hours can contribute to heightened fatigue and reduced sleep hours. Not only does less-than-adequate sleep potentially impact the quality and safety of patient care by increasing the likelihood of medical errors, it also increases the risk of adverse effects on the nurse's own health. Studies indicate sleep deprivation is associated with a greater likelihood of workplace injury, sleep-related vehicle crashes and for developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

Healthy caregivers bring important value to the health care system. Given the significant contributions nurses make to improving health care across the nation, building a healthier workforce should be a priority for system providers, employers and nurses themselves.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.