In the fast-paced environment of the modern workplace, the manifold pressures of work, relationships, and life can all coalesce in a single daunting symptom: fatigue. More than a mere feeling of drowsiness, fatigue is an issue that accumulates over time as the result of a number of factors, from work scheduling to chronic pain to social strain.
Each individual faces unique pressures, and too often, the most crucial resource for restoring the worker’s energy is also the one that is sacrificed first to make room for life. When workers don’t get enough sleep, they can suffer consequences that range from diminished performance at work to potentially severe health problems. Fatigue is a preventable issue that unfortunately inflicts great risk upon workers. Injuries are far more likely to occur when fatigue is involved in the workplace, and with injuries come workers’ compensation costs, increased overhead, and lost productivity.
Fortunately, greater awareness of the problem has helped organizations and companies to address their worker fatigue challenges from several angles. Fatigue prevention begins within the workplace culture, and an effective plan should address both the organizational and individual factors that lead to reduced performance by employees.
What is Fatigue?
The most common misconception about fatigue is that it is merely a sleepy feeling that affects workers on a temporary basis. The reality presents a much more challenging problem. Specific definitions of fatigue vary, but generally, fatigue is a state of physical or mental exhaustion that results when an individual suffers from a lack of sleep. Its effects are more pronounced when extended over long periods of time, during which the worker performs combined physical and mental exertion without taking adequate breaks for rest and recovery. The human body and brain alike rely on circadian rhythms to regulate performance while awake, and without sufficient sleep, a worker will experience lowered ability to accomplish their work tasks. Sleep science studies indicate that adults need at least seven hours of sleep in order to function properly.
However, large swaths of the population fail to meet the recommended sleep time each day. Up to 35 percent of the general population in the United States sleeps for less than seven hours, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control.
The Effects of Fatigue
Fatigue manifests across many sectors of the worker’s experience. It can lead to minor reductions in productivity, and also to injury or catastrophic operational failures. The immediate effects of fatigue among workers include:
- Reduced motor skills and fine coordination
- Impaired concentration
- Poor communication
- Poor judgment
- Dysregulated emotional response
- Other health conditions (heart problem, disorientation, hypertension, etc.)
Fatigue affects individuals similarly to inebriation. For instance, spending 17 hours awake is roughly equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05, while being awake for 20 hours is about the same as having a blood alcohol level of 0.1, which is above the legal limit in the United States and Canada. Moreover, accidents are far more common among fatigued workers; up to 70 percent of workplace incidents that result in a fatality involved fatigue at a critical point, according to DORN’s Vice President of Operations, Rainene Miller.
Specifically, the average rate of injury per 100 workers who regularly sleep for seven to eight hours per night is 2.27; however, among workers who sleep less than five hours per night, the injury rate increases to 7.89 per 100 individuals. Accidents including the Chernobyl meltdown, the Exxon Valdez wreck, and the incident at Three Mile Island all prominently involved fatigued workers.
At the organizational level, the costs of fatigue can be staggering. Research shows that fatigue costs have risen to $77 billion in the United States each year, including direct costs, claims, and worker care. Up to $18 billion has been lost in reduced productivity alone, with absenteeism and presenteeism both more likely when fatigue is present.
Causes of Fatigue
There is an array of factors that can contribute to the fatigue problem among workers. In the workplace, the issues typically begin with workload, when an employee is assigned to do more work than their time and energy permits. The specific factors include:
- Extended work hours: When an organization requires workers to put in overtime hours, work consecutive long shifts, or work several unusual shifts in a row, the worker’s circadian rhythm is often disrupted, leading to fatigue at work.
- Job design: Repetitive motion, high levels of physical exertion, poorly designed equipment, and bad ergonomic practices can all contribute to fatigue.
- Job environment: Excessively high or low temperatures can place additional physical and mental strain on the worker; likewise, noisy or low-light environments can be factors in worker fatigue.
- Shift work: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 15 percent of full-time employees work on evening, swing, rotating, or on-call shifts. These unusual work hours force the employee to work during less than optimal times for the human sleep cycle; we can never truly adapt to night work as a diurnal species.
How to Fight Fatigue
With new data and observational techniques in hand, organizations are increasingly turning to Fatigue Risk Management Systems that tackle the problem from a holistic perspective. Affecting these plans requires a five-step approach to create preventative measures and policies for dealing with fatigue in real time.
- Provide ample sleep opportunity: Employers should review their schedules and rosters to determine how much time is available for workers to sleep, factoring in the time that employees need for obligations outside of work.
- Determine minimum sleep time and maximum awake time: Managers should create policies for how long a worker can stay on the job in a given shift and on consecutive days to ensure that employees aren’t facing difficult shift requirements that can worsen fatigue.
- Monitor behavioral symptoms of fatigue: Observation, including wearables and artificial intelligence-equipped systems, can keep an eye on workers to catch fatigue-related behaviors in real time and report incidents to managers for immediate or long-term change.
- Establish and test against performance benchmarks: Employers need to understand the capabilities of their workers. Each individual faces unique challenges and brings different abilities; testing baselines can help you create policies and programs that work for your employees.
- Incident investigation: When an incident has occurred, managers must be equipped to determine whether or not fatigue was a factor so that changes can be implemented to prevent further damage and costs.
By focusing on the worker experience from all angles, including body, behavior, and environment, employers can implement effective risk management plans that follow two macro-level strategies: fatigue prevention and fatigue proofing. Both involve ensuring that workers have ample opportunity to get restful, quality sleep. With a culture of overall wellness and safety in place, workers will be empowered to remain mindful of their energy levels and confident to help themselves work to their abilities.