Why is Sleep Deprivation So Common Among Caregivers?

Sleep deprivation is a common state in this day and age, as most adults and teens have become accustomed to reducing their hours of sleep hoping to get more done during the day. We know this is especially true for students and parents, but none of them lose more sleep than people in careers like caregiving and healthcare services in general.

Full-time and overnight caregivers are required to be hypervigilant almost all the time, which causes them to over-stress and keeps them from getting adequate sleep on a regular basis. Even though many of them are constantly advised by family, friends, and colleagues to take better care of themselves and sleep more, they usually ignore these well-meaning recommendations, mostly because they feel that there is no realistic way to achieve this.

As a result, caregivers are more prone than others to suffer from conditions associated with sleep deprivation like mood swings, irritability, impaired attention, aches, and weakened immune system (a cause of serious concern in times of Covid-19). Added to this, they are at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, memory issues, and the most obvious, living in constant exhaustion.

Furthermore, a sleep-deprived caregiver or healthcare worker is likely to have less patience and empathy to care for patients, both of which are essential virtues in their career paths. The reason behind this is that, since lack of sleep affects people’s emotional wellbeing, it can promote feelings of resentfulness and even anger towards their patients.


What is considered sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is a condition that happens when a person does not get enough sleep, either in quantity or quality, to function well and stay healthy. Insufficient sleep can happen for many reasons, and they all lead to an inability to carry out day-to-day activities and, in the case of caregivers, to provide care adequately and safely.

Sleep deprivation disrupts the body’s ability to recharge. The condition is considered to be acute when an individual misses several hours of sleep but only for a short amount of time, like a week or so. This usually happens when a person needs to complete a lengthy task on a tight deadline, dedicate a few days to care for an ill person, or attend to any other temporary situations.

However, when sleep deprivation becomes part of a person’s routine for reasons like having taken a second job or starting to care for a person suffering from a terminal disease; it is considered chronic sleep deprivation. If this happens, brain function begins to alter, and cognitive performance decreases. This means that people who are severely sleep-deprived can reach a state of inattentiveness that doesn’t allow them to do common activities like cooking or driving without posing a danger to themselves and others. In fact, sleep deprivation is one of the main causes of car crashes in Canada, accounting for 21% of collisions, according to the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators.

Related : Best self care Recommendation for caregivers


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How Long Without Sleep Is Considered Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation has stages. The first one starts after 24 hours, which is the longest a person can stay awake with minimal effects. After that, at 48 hours, the lack of sleep is considered extreme sleep deprivation and that's when most people usually begin experiencing "microsleeps", which are short periods (30 seconds or so) of involuntary sleep. At 72 hours (3 days) people have a harder time fighting the urge to sleep and may start having hallucinations and disordered thinking. On day 4, people will lose their perception of reality and experience what is known as sleep deprivation psychosis. After that, if a person can't fall asleep for whatever reason, they will need medical intervention to be able to sleep.

Sleep Deprivation Signs

Some of the most common signs of sleep deprivation are:

  1. Excessive daytime sleepiness
  2. Frequent yawning
  3. Reduced concentration
  4. Poor or risky decision-making
  5. Mood swings
  6. Microsleep episodes
  7. Impaired memory
  8. Lack of energy
  9. Anxiety

If someone experiences two or more of these on a regular basis and for no apparent reason, they should make changes to improve their sleeping routine. Allocating more time to sleep may be enough if able to fall asleep naturally. If not, then medical assistance should be considered.

Why are caregivers and healthcare workers more affected by sleep deprivation than other people?

Caregiving and providing healthcare services are activities that involve spending long hours at a care facility or at home attending to patients. While some diseases and conditions allow patients to retain a certain level of independence, others like terminal cancer, dementia, Parkinson's disease, or disabilities in children require caregivers to pay their full attention to them, which leaves little time for them to get some uninterrupted rest.

What causes sleep deprivation?

Considering the levels of stress that are associated with being constantly vigilant of others, full time and overnight caregivers are more likely than other people to report feelings of burden, depression, and sleep disturbances due to only being able to sleep for short periods of time and having to constantly wake up to check up on their patients. Unfortunately, caregivers are known to minimize the effects caused by their lack of sleep and avoid bringing them up with their supervisors. This attitude is mostly attributed to feeling that their problems are not as important as what is happening to their patients.

Other reasons why caregivers experience more sleep deprivation than other people include poor sleeping accommodations because sometimes it is necessary for them to sleep next to their patients and the only available surface is usually a sofa or a chair. Excessive consumption of caffeine during work hours, feelings of constant worry about the patient (especially if the person being cared for is a family member), and having to help assist them multiple times during the night (to use the toilet, change positions or get medications), are strong reasons as well.

Related: 10 sleep tips for healthcare workers

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What Are The Effects of Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep plays an essential role in the human body's ability to function correctly, which is why constant sleep deprivation has several long-term effects in people's health, including:

  1. Heart disease and cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke
  2. Diabetes, since sleep deprivation has been found to affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar
  3. Worsened immune function
  4. Obesity, since people who don't sleep enough tend to consume more calories
  5. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder

How Long Does It Take To Recover From Sleep Deprivation?

Specialists say that just 1 hour of sleep loss takes around 4 days to recover. To speed up the process, people can consider going to bed earlier than usual, allocating at least 8 hours of sleep per day, and napping (no more than 30 minutes at a time). These simple actions can help anyone get back on schedule fairly quickly. In the case of people with health conditions that keep them from sleeping enough, the solution is to look for over-the-counter sleeping aids or prescription sleeping pills.

What can caregivers do about sleep deprivation?

Caregivers should try to get as many naps as they can, whenever they have a chance. However, they should try to avoid doing this around the late afternoon or evening unless they are working the night shift that day. Additionally, it is advisable for caregivers to go to sleep as soon as they feel sleepy and not wait for a specific time, to avoid lying awake in bed for too long.

One course of action that could benefit caregivers is talking to their supervisors about their struggles and discuss alternatives to ensure they get more hours of sleep per day. If the reason that is causing them to be sleep deprived is that their patient is unable to sleep in the first place (because of conditions like pain, shortness of breath, confusion, or restlessness), they should find a way to address these issues with the entire medical team so that both of them can rest. And if the reason is more personal, caregivers should try to identify the cause of their worries and maybe look for support in a counselor, social worker, or even a spiritual guide, if they choose to do so.

Finally, caregivers shouldn’t feel ashamed about asking for help and they should do some self care activities. Counting on someone to cover for them for a few hours while they rest, even if it is just two times per week, will make them feel so much better.

What do you think of these recommendations? Have you ever experienced sleep deprivation? Share your thoughts about this topic!

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