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B.C. researcher studies physical impact of stress on nurses

marisa harrington
UVic graduate student Marisa Harrington, who is leading a study of the impact of stress on nurses, shows the watch-like device that the nurses wear to monitor their heart rates.

Tasha Vollo-Crawford, a nurse at Royal Jubilee Hospital, says she never realized that her heart rate was always high during her shifts until she took part in a study looking at the physical impact of stress.

“I see now that I’m in a constant state of stress at work,” said Vollo-Crawford, one of 10 Victoria-area nurses who have participated so far by wearing a watch-sized monitor while on an eight-day shift rotation.

The study is being led by University of Victoria graduate student Marisa Harrington, a WorkSafeBC trainee, and supervisor Lynneth Stuart-Hill. The goal is to investigate whether those who are providing health care during the COVID-19 pandemic are staying healthy themselves.

The researchers have followed the nurses’ sleep patterns, along with such stress indicators as heart rate and heart-rate variability.

Preliminary information indicates reduced heart-rate variability, a signal that the sympathetic nervous system is dominating the parasympathetic nervous system and its calming effect on the body.

Such symptoms have also been seen among the nurses on their days off, said Harrington.

While the study has only just started, the results are already showing that responses to stress are both significant and similar among subjects, no matter what hospital or what department they work in.

“We’re still analyzing, but we are seeing significant data already, around sleep in particular,” said Harrington, an exercise physiology student pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education. “These nurses are spending more time in light sleep and less in REM sleep, as well as having less sleep overall.

“We’ve looked at the cardiovascular data and there is definitely an effect there, as well.”

Nurse Misha Sojonky said she is excited to be a part of the study, which involves taking saliva samples to look at stress hormones.

“I think that it may shed some light on the stress that nurses experience.”

The 10 nurses will now be part of a second round of tests, with the study expected to wrap up this spring.

Harrington said she was already planning to study nurses before the pandemic hit.

“Nurses are a very under-studied and under-represented part of physiological research.”

While it’s difficult to determine whether stress-related effects seen in the study come from the nature of the work or the pandemic, “we’re able to show that this is something that is affecting our essential workers,” Harrington said.

She said the study was created with the help of Island Health, and funding from UVic’s Centre for Occupational Research and Training.

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