Medical Fatigue: The Effects on Doctor and Nurse Performance

Fatigue in health care is a reality.

Granted, most of us feel tired at the end of the workday or workweek, no matter our profession but there are additional stresses placed on people working in the healthcare industry.

So we shouldn’t really be shocked to read that with all the long hours and hard work healthcare professionals put in day in and day out, they are often feeling the effects of fatigue.

Nursing rosters are irregular

While conducting research for this article, I found many nurses on various forums and message boards shared the same sentiment: there is no typical nursing schedule or roster.

Some shared the anomaly that during one week, they work 12- and 8-hour shifts for three days in a row followed by several days off, while during the next week, they’d work 8-hour shifts every day except one.

The word usually was used often amongst these expressions, however it was almost always followed by but as in, “I usually work three times a week from 7am to 7pm, but that often changes at a moment’s notice.” Rotation is common; a fixed schedule is rare.

Shifts and rosters are also dependent on your facility as well as the demands of that specific day or night.

An irregular roster leads to irregular sleep patterns

Effects of insufficient sleep, poor sleep quality, and sleep deprivation include anxiety and depression. It also affects your brain’s ability to store and recall information, and negatively impacts reaction time.

In a world where appropriate and rapid action becomes crucial to a patient’s health, health professionals cannot afford to falter here.

Nurse and doctor fatigue takes its toll… on not only staff, but patients, too

Nurses and doctors

The cumulative effects of fatigue or drowsiness are both short- and long-term. As sleep becomes more elusive thanks to a jam-packed schedule, we feel worn out, fatigued and exhausted. But duty calls, the days and nights wear on, and health professionals are working through fatigue.

Here at Optalert we understand fatigue management extends beyond the hours an employee is at work. We consider the periods travelling to work and home from work on either side of a shift just as pertinent when it comes to health and safety.

That’s why we provide all-hour protection beyond an 8- or 12-hour shift. Did you know that those who work night shifts are six times more likely to be involved in a drowsy driving-related accident than those who do not?

Their patients

The domino effect tumbles onto patients, too. Sleep deprivation, fatigue or drowsiness contributes to:


  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Poor or impaired judgement
  • Impaired reaction times


In a workplace where critical, urgent and vital decisions are made by doctors and nursing staff, the effects of sleep deprivation become dangerous to patients.

Research from the Minnesota Nurses Association (2007) concluded nurses are three times more likely to make errors when working shifts longer than 12 hours a day (or 60 hours total per week).

Fatigue management planning

It is the combined efforts of healthcare professionals and their employers to create and implement strategies that help minimise the onset of fatigue and drowsiness. Simultaneously, this results in improved nursing care for patients and employee satisfaction.

Safe and healthy work hours – even in in-demand emergency industries like medical – not only improves the health, happiness and wellbeing of your staff, but that in turn leads to improved and enhanced care for patients. Understaffing and consecutive shift work are two of the most problematic factors affecting nursing staff and other healthcare professionals.

This is where Optalert can help a team of employers and employees.

By accurately measuring and monitoring employee behaviour during their shifts (as well as on the way to and the way home from work), the data Optalert collects can be used to help an employer create a fatigue management plan that incorporates optimum shift rosters and rotations.

While the employer has the ability to change the company culture through accurate fatigue management planning, not all responsibility falls onto them: even the best and most accurate fatigue management plans cannot guarantee an employee has adequate rest between shifts.

Healthcare professionals, therefore, have a responsibility to not only themselves, but to their patients too, to ensure they get good quality sleep between shifts.

Night shifts cannot be eliminated

We understand night shifts are necessary in the emergency field. Fatigue countermeasures, therefore, must be tested in these kinds of 24-hour operations. These may include predetermined nap periods during shifts and caffeine. (Remember, though, the only real cure for fatigue or drowsiness is sleep.)

Which Optalert product is right for you?

If you’re a healthcare employer worried about the safety of your staff (and the ensuing effects on their patients), you need Optalert. Our technology will help you create optimum rostering and an effective fatigue management plan. Find out which product is right for you here.