Medical staff working the night shift could benefit from a snappy ten-minute nap to regain alertness and improve performance, research has revealed.
In their editorial published in the latest Medical Journal of Australia, Associate Professor Doug McEvoy and Professor Leon Lack of Flinders University in Adelaide have looked into the benefits of short periods of shut-eye for medical staff working through the night.
"Night shift requires the health professional to work when the body's clock (circadian system) requires sleep," say Assoc Prof McEvoy.
Interruptions to the circadian system can cause slowed reaction times, increased feelings of fatigue, impaired concentration and an increased risk of falling asleep on the job.
Assoc Prof McEvoy says the effect of fatigue on a health professional's performance is similar to that of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 - 0.10 per cent.
"The net result of this assault on sleep ... can be impaired patient safety, and the health and safety of health professionals themselves," he says.
"One proposed counter-measure for excessive sleepiness is the use of strategically placed naps both before and during the night shift."
He recommends an afternoon nap, to take advantage of a natural dip in circadian rhythms.
Naps of about ten minutes' duration produce improvements in alertness and performance without the post-nap grogginess that can be experienced after longer periods of one to two hours, Assoc Prof McEvoy says.
How long the effects of a ten-minute nap last, and whether they would work as well at 3am as they do at 3pm, are still being tested.
"The picture emerging from night-shift napping studies is similar to that from the afternoon studies," say Assoc Prof McEvoy.
"Health professionals who work night shift should, for the sake of their own health and safety and that of their patients, consider the benefits of night-napping."