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Getting the shift pattern right for nurses

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DHB junior doctors are lobbying hard for shifts with fewer days in a row and fewer night shifts in a row. This is because they know fatigue leads to greater risk of mistakes. They also know that patient care and engagement is not as good when they are sleep deprived or not rejuvenated sufficiently between rosters.

Nurses are also on shifts, do overtime, work nights and need to have recovery time to be on form. A New Zealand research project about nurses shift work was launched earlier this month.

Studies in Australia and the United States of America show nurses get less sleep on work days than non-work days and how much less depends on the shift pattern they are on.

Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre and School of Nursing, in collaboration with the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, is running the project designed to take an evidence-based approach towards managing shift work and fatigue for hospital nurses.

The Safer Nursing 24/7 project, led by Professor Philippa Gander, aims to improve health service delivery by improving both patient safety and the safety, health, quality of life and retention of nurses.

Project manager Dr Karyn O’Keeffe says, “Less sleep is directly related to increased risk of clinical errors, struggling to stay awake at work, and drowsy-driving on the way home.

“The hours of sleep someone gets in the 24-hour period before their shift significantly affects their ability to remain awake at work, and is a significant predictor of errors and, near errors. Sleep-deprived nurses report a higher number of patient-care errors, and an American study found nurses struggled to stay awake on 20 per cent of their shifts,” Dr O’Keeffe says.

NZNO has worked collaboratively with the team from Massey University from the project’s inception, both sitting on the advisory board, and in helping with seed funding to support the Health Research Council funding bid. NZNO principal researcher Leonie Walker is a member of the study team and helped develop the study protocol and survey.

“There is a huge variety of shift patterns worked in New Zealand. We have different lengths of shift and different patterns of day and night rosters operating. We need to discover the pros and cons and practicalities of these to develop some evidence-based guidelines for safe and appropriate shift rostering,” Walker explains.

“It’s a bigger problem for some than others, depends on physiology, other life issues, age and also the nature of the work.”

Walker says a shift in an operating theatre for example might be more or less fatiguing than a shift in an outpatient clinic or a special care baby unit but we just don’t know at this stage.

The literature is clear about the risks of error increasing with fatigue. A recent systematic review by NZNO policy adviser Jill Clendon and Veronique Gibbons showed the errors for 12 hour shifts were higher, other things being equal, than for 8-10 hour shifts.

“Equally important to us is the risk to nurses of chronic fatigue – to their health, and for example driving home drowsy,” Walker said.

Walker suggests we need to research our hunch that there are factors other than shift length alone, particularly the pattern of the shift changes that will be just as important.

Safer Nursing 24/7 is a collaboration between the researchers and the nursing community, and is supported by an advisory group of key nursing representatives, as well as an expert in epidemiology and biostatistics.  Nurses and District Health Boards are being invited to participate in three main activities:

  1. Completing an online survey of the work patterns of nurses nationwide in six practice areas.
  2. Development of new education and training materials on how shift work affects fatigue and how to improve sleep, particularly when working shifts.
  3. Consultation on a new Code of Practice for shift work in hospital-based nursing.

Research funders: The project has received major funding from the Health Research Council, with additional funding from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, McCutchan Trust and Massey University.

Click here to watch a short video about the project.


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A day in the life of a mental health nurse in New Zealand

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This blog was sent to us by a NZNO member who works in mental health. We are choosing to keep their details anonymous because of the intense scrutiny that mental health services are currently under. This blog is a personal reflection on their own experience, rather than NZNO’s view, but we are sure it resonates with many of you who work in the sector. We really appreciate them sharing their story, and hope it gives some context to the recent media coverage of our mental health services. 

It is 7am and I am off to see a patient in the emergency department. It is a young man who has self-harmed overnight. This scenario is becoming all too common in today’s mental health setting. You see, mental illness is the invisible disease. Presenting to the emergency department in emotional distress, the only visible signs are an unkempt man with a frightened look on his face.

Coming into the cubicle I see a young man in obvious distress. A feeling of hopelessness comes from him. I walk in and introduce myself. We begin to talk. Eyes downcast, feeling somewhat embarrassed as he shares his story with me. He talks to me in a quiet voice. He knows he needs help but does not know where to obtain the help he needs. His relationship with his family has become strained. They have tried to help, but are unable to provide the support he requires.

This man begins to articulate his struggle with schizophrenia. His self harm is due to despair: a belief that life holds nothing for him.  By the end of the interview I know I have several options open to me as a clinician:

  • We could send him home to his parents. But evidently his parents are unable to cope anymore with his distress.
  • We could suggest his GP follow up and maybe a visit from the already over-stretched crisis team.
  • Another option is to find a community respite bed for a few days. But we know that these are few and far between. I will have to telephone and “sell” his case to the respite coordinator if I am to make this happen.
  • Another option is to try and organise for him to be admitted into the inpatient ward. But I know they are nearly always full or over capacity. This is yet another hard sell to find this young man a place to be safe and be supported.

I go to discuss treatment options within the consult liaison team and the decision is made to admit the young man to the inpatient unit. I call the ward coordinator.  “What are his risks they ask?” Not, ‘who he is’, but, what logistical problems might he bring to the unit.

This is mental health nursing today. There is now a ‘risk adverse’ culture that always errs on the side of organisational safety: a system characterised by a lack of choices due to limited resourcing.

This is the young man’s first time in an inpatient unit. I try and reassure him, but as soon we get to the unit the door closes.  People are busy. I try and find a nurse. They are few and far between. I eventually find the nurse assigned to my client. A brief introduction is shared, but I know the nurse is trying to get the paperwork done. Admission note, risk assessment, interview with the psychiatrist, place them on the observation board and a host of other tasks. This leaves little time to begin getting to know, understand and work alongside my client to better support them.

I leave my client and return to the ED, there is another case on the board.

This time another young person in a self-harm situation – they were bullied at school and decided to end their life.

Nurses do care, but we are not being given the time or resources to provide the level of service and care that I would want or expect if it was my family member presenting to mental health services.

We do not want to restrict or deny the people we care for their freedoms. Too often the concept of least restrictive practice is sidelined by lack of resources.

The organisations we work for are worried. Worried about risk and what could be in the papers tomorrow. So much so they seem to have forgotten about the core reason we are here – we are here to help.

I as a clinician welcome the reviews and public scrutiny. The current structure needs looking at so we mental health professionals are able to provide the service, care and support that our clients deserve.