It's hardly news that health care workers have been under immense stress during the Covid pandemic, something Abdalla, a cardiologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre, has witnessed first-hand since early 2020. As a physician-scientist, she formed a team to study health care workers' reactions to stress, with a special emphasis on the pandemic's effects on sleep.
During the pandemic's first peak in New York City, she and her colleagues conducted a series of surveys of health care workers' sleep habits and psychological symptoms. The group's first paper, published in August, summarised the sleep data, showing that over 70 per cent of health care workers had at least moderate insomnia symptoms during the pandemic's first peak. Though that number declined alongside Covid case counts, nearly four in 10 still suffered from insomnia symptoms 10 weeks later when the first Covid wave was over and work schedules had returned to more normal levels.
Poor sleep not only affects patient care -- "We know that lack of sleep degrades the quality of care for our patients and can increase medical errors," said Abdalla -- but also may also trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In the second study, the researchers found that health care workers who reported poor sleep also reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than health care workers who slept better.
Although stress, anxiety, and depression can arise among well-rested individuals, "sleep is essential to mental health and there is a bidirectional relationship," Abdalla said.
"While we don't know from this study if psychological distress itself caused poor sleep or if poor sleep resulted in psychological distress among these health care workers, improving sleep can reduce psychological problems and vice versa," she explained.
Abdalla added that if future studies can tease apart the direction of this relationship and the impact of poor sleep on mental health for health care workers during the pandemic, there may be several potential interventions, from cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia to increasing break room rest areas, and/or installing nap pods for hospital staff to use during long shifts.
"For people who might be sleep-deprived, encourage them to go and lie down for 20 minutes or 30 minutes," Abdalla said.
Improved sleep won't alleviate all the extra stress that health care workers face but may help to improve mental and physical health.
"Previous research has shown that sleep trouble increases your risk for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and cancer. If you have trouble sleeping, let this be a wake-up call," said Abdalla.