Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers, and Other Healthcare Workers

Posted on by Beverly M. Hittle, PhD, RN, Imelda S. Wong, PhD and Claire C. Caruso, PhD, RN, FAAN
Photo ©GettyImages

At times of crisis, healthcare workers (e.g., nurses, advanced practice nurses, physicians, nursing assistants, etc.) continue to provide care, despite ever challenging work demands, including higher influx of critically ill patients, increased work stress, and a frequent need for overtime. These work demands can compound already challenging work schedules (i.e. 12-hour shifts, night shifts), making it more difficult to obtain regular shift breaks and enough time off between shifts for adequate recovery. All of these work factors (i.e. physical, emotional, and/or mental demands) combined with insufficient sleep, contribute to fatigue.1-3

Healthcare workers experiencing fatigue can jeopardize their own health and safety, such as increasing their susceptibility to infectious diseases,4 needlesticks,5 work-related muscle injuries,6 and burnout,7 as well as committing patient care errors.8,9 Nurses providing care during disasters or emerging disease epidemics10,11 have reported sleeping less, experiencing intense levels of fatigue, decreased well-being, and depression.

It can be difficult to step away when the healthcare system is flooded with people needing care. During these periods, fatigue among healthcare workers may be impossible to avoid. So how can employers and healthcare workers balance the high demands for health care with the need to protect workers from fatigue? Workers and managers must actively share the responsibility to control the risks of injuries and incidents associated with fatigue through personal and workplace strategies, as well as a fatigue risk management system.3,12 For example, one step is to recognize healthcare worker sleep is critical for the delivery of quality health care. Workers and managers should try to plan for 7 or more hours of sleep in addition to recovery time each day, as needed to maintain alertness and health. Fatigue management is a shared responsibility that requires planning and ensures organizations the sustainability of healthcare services during times of public health crises, as well as protects the health and safety of workers and their patients.

Practical Fatigue Management Tips:13,14

For healthcare workers-

    • Prioritize sleep by decreasing off-work obligations as much as possible, until feeling fully rested.
    • Use relaxation apps or techniques to aid in sleep onset, if you have trouble falling asleep (longer than 15-25 minutes),
    • Create a pre-sleep, bedtime routine and keep your sleeping environment comfortable, dark, cool, and quiet.
    • Avoid alcohol, spicy foods, and nicotine for at least 2-3 hours prior to sleep time.
    • Avoid caffeine at least 5 hours before bedtime (longer if sensitive to caffeine).
    • Avoid sunlight/bright lights 1.5 hours prior to sleep, as it can stimulate your circadian system to promote wakefulness.
    • Use strategically timed naps to decrease fatigue. Short naps (15-30 minutes) can help to decrease fatigue during work hours. Longer naps (1.5 hours) can help prevent fatigue before working night shift.
    • Find a fellow worker to be a buddy for checking-in on how you each are coping.
    • Watch for signs and symptoms of fatigue in yourself and coworkers (e.g., yawning, difficulty concentrating, emotional instability, flawed logic, poor communication).
    • Report to a manager when you feel too fatigued to work.

For managers-

    • Communicate with staff about their flexibility to work when needed, avoiding repercussions for those who may have restricted availability. When workers are unable to establish strong off-duty support action plans, it can create undue stress and decrease the off-work time devoted to recovery.
    • Provide daily communication rounds with staff to share information on work hour needs, work processes.
    • Educate staff on sleep and self-care strategies.
    • Try to limit scheduling staff for extended shifts (>12 hours). Extended shifts increase the risk for fatigue-related incidents, as well as increases worker exposure time to infectious diseases and other workplace hazards
    • During times of crisis, provide a minimum of 10 hours off in-between shifts (each 24-hour period), and one full day of rest per seven days for adequate sleep and recovery.
    • Provide strategies for staff to take short breaks every 2 hours during their shifts, including short naps and longer for meals.
    • Consider providing supportive services onsite (e.g., laundry, sleeping rooms, healthy food and drinks).
    • Monitor staff for signs and symptoms of fatigue (i.e., yawning, difficulty concentrating, emotional instability, flawed logic, poor communication).
    • Ensure all staff have a buddy in place to monitor for signs and symptoms of fatigue and other poor health outcomes.
    • Consider creating a signal or some procedure for workers to report when they feel they or a colleague are too fatigued to work, potentially contributing to an unsafe situation


Additional Resources:

The NIOSH Training for Emergency Responders program provides additional education for preventing fatigue during emergency and critical needs situations. The training takes approximately 30 minutes to complete.

For individuals working evening or night shifts, additional education specific to working evening and night shift can be found in NIOSH Training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Work Hours, Part 2, Module 9 (approximately 12 minutes to complete).

For a more comprehensive training program, the NIOSH Training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Work Hours, is available for all nurses and nurse managers. The entire training takes approximately 3.5 hours to complete with continuing education credits available upon completion.

What strategies have you and/or your employer put in place to manage fatigue risks?

This blog is available in Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.

This blog is part of a series hosted by NIOSH to commemorate nurses during the Year of the Nurse.

Other blogs in the series include:

Year of the Nurse

Nurses’ and Other Health Professionals’ Wellness and Safety Resource Update

Surgical Smoke Inhalation: Dangerous Consequences for the Surgical Team

Safety Culture and Health Care

Work Ability among Older Nurses

The Unique Occupational Environment of the Home Healthcare Worker

Can Exoskeletons Reduce Musculoskeletal Disorders in Healthcare Workers?

Preventing Needlesticks and Sharps Injuries: Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act

Celebrating Nurses



Beverly Hittle, PhD, RN, is a post-doctoral fellow with the Division of Science Integration at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. She also is on faculty at the College of Nursing, University of Cincinnati, with expertise in nurse health and safety.

Imelda Wong, PhD, is the Co-Chair for the Work Hours and Fatigue Workgroup and an Industrial Hygienist/Epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Science Integration.

Claire Caruso, PhD, RN, FAAN, is research health scientist and Co-Chair for the Work Hours and Fatigue Workgroup in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Science Integration.



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  3. Lerman SE, Eskin E, Flower DJ, et al. Fatigue risk management in the workplace. J Occup Environ Med. 2012;54(2):231-258.
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  6. Caruso CC, Waters TR. A review of work schedule issues and musculoskeletal disorders with an emphasis on the healthcare sector. Industrial Health. 2008;46(6):523-534.
  7. Chin W, Guo YL, Hung YJ, Yang CY, Shiao JSC. Short sleep duration is dose-dependently related to job strain and burnout in nurses: A cross sectional survey. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2015;52(1):297-306.
  8. Rogers AE, Hwang W-T, Scott LD, Aiken LH, Dinges DF. The working hours of hospital staff nurses and patient safety. Health affairs. 2004;23(4):202-212.
  9. Lockley SW, Barger, L. K., Ayas, N. T., Rothschild, J. M., Czeisler, C. A., Landrigan, C. P. Effects of Health Care Provider Work Hours and Sleep Deprivation on Safety and Performance. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety. 2007;33(11):7-18.
  10. Su T-P, Lien T-C, Yang C-Y, et al. Prevalence of psychiatric morbidity and psychological adaptation of the nurses in a structured SARS caring unit during outbreak: A prospective and periodic assessment study in Taiwan. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2007;41(1):119 – 130.
  11. Yokoyama Y, Hirano K, Sato M, et al. Activities and Health Status of Dispatched Public Health Nurses after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Public Health Nursing. 2014;31(6):537-544.
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Posted on by Beverly M. Hittle, PhD, RN, Imelda S. Wong, PhD and Claire C. Caruso, PhD, RN, FAAN

11 comments on “Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers, and Other Healthcare Workers”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Don’t forget providing time for stretching, meditation or light workouts to help down regulate.

    Fatigue is a pre-condition for mistakes in the performance of critical procedures such as taking off PPE and adjusting respiratory protection in the midst of difficult procedures. Self-inoculation can result.
    There are multiple kinds of workers in health care ranging from administrative and support staff such as laundry and food service workers, the technicians like those who sterilize medical equipment, and the medical people like doctors and nurses. Each have special needs for preventing transmission of infectious materials
    The buddy system in one way to check performance of stressed and fatigued workers. Managers can facilitate the implementation of a buddy system.

    Thanks for producing this. However, I feel it doesn’t reflect a realistic understanding of power relationships in the healthcare workplace. While I agree HCWs should take responsibility for self-care, individual HCWs have little to no voice in scheduling, staffing, and other “Management” decision making. Even when we are not in pandemic conditions occupational stressors that contribute to fatigue include inadequate staffing, workplace violence and bullying, lack of safe patient handling programs, and the list goes on. These stress and fatigue factors should be addressed and are primarily an employer responsibility. The issue of safe staffing in itself is very informative, only one state has a safe patient ratio law, California, even though the evidence of the benefits to HCW and patient safety are well established.

    Thanks for this article. We have 1000s of nurses and carers using our app and I am glad to promote this article to our members. Regards

    We would like to begin by thanking you for your blog concerning fatigue during times of crisis for healthcare workers. As nurses in the healthcare system, caring for patients during the COVID pandemic has proven to be a great weight for many healthcare providers. We have watched our colleagues leave our units or their professions, our work life balance has shifted tremendously over the last two years, and with every new variant comes the reality that improvement of the healthcare system is far in the future. This is why we appreciate your blog, providing tools for not only the healthcare worker but for those who are managing this group. We were curious as to what drove you to create this post, and if looking back from when it was originally published to current times would you change or add to any of the advice given. We have each chosen to continue our work as nurses through this pandemic and historic nursing shortage, and we are each continuing our education by completing our RN to BSN. In your expert opinion, do you have any advice or resources for nurses who are trying to balance working in the field, having a personal life, and continuing their education without becoming fatigued and burnt out? We would appreciate any feedback and thank you for your time in reading this communication.

    Best Regards,

    Natishia Mitchell RN
    Danielle Sanchez RN
    Michaela Washington RN

    Thank you for your commitment in caring for patients. We appreciate your feedback.
    This blog was developed to commemorate the Year of the Nurse, and was published soon after COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the United States. We provided strategies for healthcare workers and managers to reduce fatigue they regularly face in their work, and with the growing challenge posed by the pandemic.
    Several resources have been recently published to address burnout among our health workers. These include:
    The Surgeon General’s Advisory Addressing Health Worker Burnout provides recommendations to address factors underpinning burnout and improve health worker well-being.
    NIOSH’s Training and Resources for Health Workers and Mental Health provides resources and training on stress management and coping strategies.
    • Mental health support services are offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health
    Thank you for your comments.

    I found this blog so amazing. So much information, and it’s all so well organized. This is going to be a valuable resource for me. Thank you so much for creating it!

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Page last reviewed: March 7, 2024
Page last updated: March 7, 2024