A digital coach to help overworked health care workers get a good night's sleep

- Montreal, Quebec

This past year, the COVID‑19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the mental health of Canadians, especially those who are front‑line health care workers. Health care employees currently have higher than normal workloads, an extremely stressful work environment and are often deprived of a good night's sleep. With inadequate sleep, health care providers are at risk of deteriorating their well‑being and overextending themselves, which can lead to poor decision making and missteps in the workplace. These mistakes can result in being less focussed and cause fatigue‑related incidents or put others and themselves at risk.

Although digital sleeping tools already exist, none are designed to meet the specific needs of front‑line health care workers. In February 2021, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) Pandemic Response Challenge program determined there was a need to help front‑line health care workers struggling with their sleeping habits. Protecting the mental health of our health care providers is essential because they are at great risk of depression or other mental health issues resulting from sleep deprivation. Researchers from the Simulation and Digital Health team within the NRC's Medical Devices Research Centre, in collaboration with the Douglas Research Centre, are working to develop a digital sleep and fatigue coach for front‑line health care workers to improve their well‑being in extraordinary circumstances, like the current COVID‑19 pandemic.

The primary objective of the digital interactive tool is to improve mental health by promoting good sleep and fatigue management in front‑line health care teams during the pandemic and beyond. Understanding the specific challenges that these professionals are living is at the heart of the development.

Hacking some Zzzs

As front‑line staff are extremely busy, the project team knows that the tool they develop will need to be quick and easy to use anywhere.

"The tool will propose solutions to help front‑line health care workers cope with weariness and reduce their stress and anxiety levels. This can be achieved by promoting good sleep and fatigue management to allow them to stay productive and safe in their demanding work environment," says Stephanie Grenier, Research Officer in the Simulation and Digital Health team. "It is important to consult with front‑line health care workers to understand their needs, their experiences and preferences to design the tool accordingly."

Before developing the tool, the team will survey about 1,500 health care workers to understand the impact of the pandemic on their working conditions, sleep habits and health status to see what challenges they face. To accomplish this, the Douglas Research Centre partnered with the Montréal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (MWI IUHSSC) to survey their health care employees. Their interest in using a digital tool to promote sleep and fatigue management will also be measured.

The team will also develop a prototype and will have a select group of users test the digital coach to get feedback on real‑life experiences and will be a proof of concept for workers.

No more losing sleep

"Over the years, our team has developed a strong expertise in digital health. We continue to advance software that harnesses the latest technology for learning, assessing and treating," shares Patricia Debergue, Section Head of the Simulation and Digital Health team. "Through our collaboration with Dr. Diane Boivin and the Douglas Research Centre, we hope to provide health care workers with easily accessible and science‑based digital tools."

Dr. Boivin is a professor of psychiatry at McGill University and the Director of the Centre for Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, affiliated to the MWI IUHSSC. She says, "The actual situation is challenging because the work demands are so high during the pandemic that there is little negotiation for health care workers to find a good balance between operational and personal needs".

Dr. Boivin will lead the scientific project in collaboration with her colleagues, professors Michel Perreault and Manuela Ferrari, and research associates Philippe Boudreau and Niamh Power. "We have extensive experience in fatigue management at work, covering several industries such as transportation, mining, health care and emergency services. We hope to transfer our knowledge in the form of an interactive digital tool specifically designed to help health care workers make the most appropriate choices in terms of sleep behavior despite their demanding and irregular work schedule," she adds.

The project's ultimate goal is to have a tool that is useful for all health care workers across Canada. The tool could be used at the national level and help the wellness of health care teams during the pandemic and other crises. It can also benefit everyday activities as these workers are usually on atypical work schedules and that in itself can affect getting a decent night's sleep. The survey results will be published and will help bring to light the situation to the scientific and public policy communities. It will also guide the health care system towards the establishment of priorities and resources to improve the well‑being of front‑line workers. The digital coach can also become a commercial product brought to market by a Canadian company. In the end, if it helps frontline health care workers get a good night's sleep, then we can all rest a bit easier.

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