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Hospital Workers Wash Hands Less Frequently Toward End Of The Shift: Study

Update Date: Nov 11, 2014 10:02 AM EST

Hospital workers who deal directly with patients wash their hands less frequently as their workday progresses, according to a new study. 

The tendency might be because of the demands of the job depletes the mental reserves they need to follow rules, the study said.

The study looked at three years of hand-washing data from 4,157 caregivers in 35 U.S. hospitals and found that "hand-washing compliance rates" dropped by an average of 8.7 percentage points from the beginning to the end of a typical 12-hour shift. 

"Just as the repeated exercise of muscles leads to physical fatigue, repeated use of executive resources (cognitive resources that allow people to control their behaviors, desires and emotions) produces a decline in an individual's self-regulatory capacity," the researchers wrote.

More time off between shifts appeared to restore workers' executive resources - they followed hand-washing protocol more carefully after longer breaks, the press release added.

"Demanding jobs have the potential to energize employees, but the pressure may make them focus more on maintaining performance on their primary tasks (e.g., patient assessment, medication distribution), particularly when they are fatigued," said lead researcher Hengchen Dai, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, in the press release. "For hospital caregivers, hand-washing may be viewed as a lower-priority task and thus it appears compliance with hand hygiene guidelines suffers as the workday progresses."

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. 

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