A recent study out of the University of Victoria is showing physical signs of high levels of stress in nurses, on and off the hospital floor.
UVic kinesiology student Marisa Harrington started the study to take a deeper look at the physiological responses to stress in frontline workers amid COVID-19.
Last year during the pandemic, she collected cardiovascular, sleep and protein data from 10 different nurses, from both the Victoria General Hospital and the Royal Jubilee Hospital. The nurses work in different units and vary in age and experience.
Based on preliminary results of their stress levels, Harrington says she is seeing strong evidence of cardiovascular stress when nurses are working and when they’re not.
“That heart rate variability response is still exhibiting what we call a stress state even when they’re not on shift,” said Harrington. “They have four days off and we’re still seeing it on day three and four off.”
Harrington says chronic increased heart rate, and constant release of stress hormones (like Cortisol) can be detrimental to your health in the long term.
“You’re actually at an increased risk of cardiovascular infarctions, like heart attacks, strokes, mental health disorders, obesity, and all cause mortality,” said the researcher.
The possible long term effects of the constant state of stress is a worry for Tasha Vollo, an RJH nurse participating in the study.
“It’s not surprising that we’re under stress at work, I wasn’t surprised by that,” said Vollo, who’s been a nurse for 10 years. “I was surprised that my heart rate was elevated throughout my entire shift, regardless of being in a stressful situation or not. You have to think about what the long-term effects are of that stress, that it’s happening to you even if you’re not thinking that it is.”
The study also shows nurses aren’t getting the sound sleep they need.
“What we’re seeing with our nurses, is that they’re spending a lot more time in light sleep, and not as much spent in REM, which is the deeper, dream sleep,” said Harrington.
So far, this is just the cardiovascular data of the study. Harrington still has to go through the proteins and hormones found in the nurse’s saliva that can show other signs of stress.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to draw attention to what some of the stresses that those in this profession are going through and hopefully we can find a way soon, if not in five or 10 years down the line as to how we can best mitigate this,” said Harrington.
Meanwhile, Vollo is also hopeful this study will lead to other studies.
“It’s nothing new that nurses are under pressure and stress at work, we’ve been saying this for years. Now there will be scientific data to prove that,” said the nurse.
“I’m hopeful that there are things that could be done to help alleviate the stress for nurses, because it’s a career I’d never want to leave, but it’s concerning that we are clearly under a lot of stress.”
The final results of the study will be released later this year, hoping to shine a light on what our front line heroes face every day.