Do Stressed Nurses Make More Errors? What The Latest Science Says

Picture of Elderly Woman With Nurse in Hospital Bed

Stress and burnout are huge issues throughout the health care industry. Nurses, in particular, are vulnerable. They work long hours in physically and mentally demanding positions — often with little support. Unfortunately, the latest research suggests that this extreme stress causes suffering not only among nurses, but also, for their patients.

How Stress Impacts Nursing Performance

Stress is part and parcel with the nursing profession, but at certain levels, it can be managed to limit the impact on patients. Many nurses, however, face stress above and beyond what they can handle on a day-to-day basis.

Stress can negatively affect focus, making it difficult for nurses to observe and record key details when assessing patients, making diagnoses, or prescribing treatments.

Another consideration: studies indicate that sleep-deprived nurses make more errors. This is common among those working the night shift, but is also a problem for any nurse kept up at night by stress.

No matter the cause, stress holds emotional implications, which, in turn, could negatively impact bedside manner. Nurses who are too stressed to convey warmth and compassion are less likely to build the strong relationships needed for positive patient outcomes.

The Role of Self-Medication

High stress is problematic in and of itself, but it can lead to further issues with job performance when nurses feel the need to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, substance abuse is common in this profession. Alarming research suggests that anywhere between 14 and 20 percent of RNs abuse or are dependent on alcohol or illicit substances. Some have even hit headlines for being under the influence on the job.

Even if nurses never use substances at work, drugs and alcohol can still impact their performance. Substance abuse has been shown to harm executive functioning, thereby limiting crucial qualities such as problem-solving and attention to detail.

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