Disentangling the effects of psychological and physical work demands on sleep, recovery and maladaptive chronic stress outcomes within a large sample of Australian nurses


  • Peter C. Winwood BDS BPsych PhD,

  • Kurt Lushington PhD

Peter Winwood, School of Psychology, University of South Australia, City East Campus, Frome Road, Adelaide, SA 5073, Australia. E-mail: peter.winwood@unisa.edu.au


Aim.  This paper reports a study to determine if different types of work strain experienced by nurses, particularly those of an essentially psychological nature, such as emotional demand, mental effort and problems with peers and/or supervisors, have a differential impact on sleep quality and overall recovery from work strain, compared with physical work strains, and lead to higher maladaptive chronic fatigue outcomes.

Background.  Various studies have shown that the dominant work-demand strain associated with nursing work can vary between different areas of nursing. For example, whereas emotional strain is reported to be the principal strain associated with work in areas such as oncology, haematology and renal units, medical and surgical unit nurses report work pace and staffing issues as the dominant work strain. Purely physical strain seems to be less commonly reported as a concern.

Method.  A large sample (n = 760) of Australian nurses working in a large metropolitan hospital completed questionnaires on their work demands, sleep quality, fatigue, and recovery between shifts in January 2004.

Findings.  A high work pace exacerbates the psychological rather than the physical strain demands of nursing. Psychological strain affects sleep quality and impairs recovery from overall work strain between shifts. This combination is highly predictive of serious maladaptive stress/fatigue outcomes among nurses.

Conclusion.  Coping with psychological stressors adequately is an important requirement for nurses in order to avoid adverse health effects and maintain a long-term career in nursing. Appropriate training of undergraduate nursing students in managing the stresses they are likely to encounter would seem to be an essential requirement for the 21st century. Such training might constitute an important long-term component in overcoming the chronic nurse shortages evident in many countries.