From the Journals

Less sleep, more burnout linked to higher COVID-19 risk, study shows


More sleep at night, fewer or no sleep problems, and low levels of professional burnout were associated with a lower risk of developing COVID-19 among health care workers considered to be at high risk for exposure to patients with COVID-19, new evidence reveals.

A sleepy doctor holds a coffee mug while looking at her computer. PRImageFactory/iStock/Getty Images

For each additional hour of sleep at night, for example, risk for COVID-19 dropped by 12% in a study of 2844 frontline health care workers.

Furthermore, those who reported experiencing work-related burnout every day were 2.6 times more likely to report having COVID-19, to report having COVID-19 for a longer time, and to experience COVID-19 of more severity.

“This study underscores the importance of non–hygiene-related risk factors for COVID-19 and supports a holistic approach to health – including optimal sleep and job stress reduction to protect our health care workers from this and future pandemics,” senior author Sara B. Seidelmann, MD, said in an interview.

“Our findings add to the literature that sleep duration at night, sleep problems, and burnout may be risk factors for viral illnesses like COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Seidelmann and colleagues.

This is the first study to link COVID-19 risk to sleep habits – including number of hours of sleep at night, daytime napping hours, and severe sleep problems – among health care workers across multiple countries.

The study was published online March 22 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, and Health.

The researchers surveyed health care professionals in specialties considered to place personnel at high risk for exposure to SARS-CoV-2: critical care, emergency care, and internal medicine.

The association between sleep and burnout risk factors and COVID-19 did not vary significantly by specialty. “We didn’t detect any significant interactions between age, sex, specialty, or country,” said Dr. Seidelmann, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, and an internist at Stamford (Conn.) Hospital.

In addition to the 12% lower risk associated with each additional hour of sleep at night, each 1 additional hour of daytime napping was linked with a 6% increased risk for COVID-19 in an adjusted analysis (odds ratio [OR], 1.06; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.01-1.12).

Daytime napping slightly increased risk for COVID-19 in five of the six countries included in the study: France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In contrast, in Spain, napping had a nonsignificant protective effect.

The survey asked health care workers to recall nighttime sleep duration, sleep disorders, and burnout in the year prior to onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Significant, close contact’ with COVID-19?

Lead author Hyunju Kim, NP, Dr. Seidelmann, and colleagues conducted the population-based, case-control study from July 17 to Sept. 25, 2020. They identified health care workers from the SurveyHealthcareGlobus (SHG) network.

Of the respondents, 72% were men. The mean age of the participants was 48 years, and the study population was 77% White, 12% Asian, 6% mixed background, 2% Black, and 1% other. (The remainder preferred not to say).

The 568 health care workers considered to have COVID-19 were classified on the basis of self-reported symptoms. Control participants had no symptoms associated with COVID-19.

All 2,844 participants answered yes to a question about having “significant close contact” with COVID-19 patients in their workplace.

Compared to reporting no sleep problems, having three such problems – difficulty sleeping at night, poor sleep continuity, and frequent use of sleeping pills – was associated with 88% greater odds of COVID-19 (OR, 1.88; 95% CI, 1.17–3.01).

Having one sleep problem was not associated with COVID-19.


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