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2018-07-26

Fatigue at Work: Why It's Worse than You Think (and What You Should Do About It)

Takeaway: Fatigue is more than just feeling a little tired – it’s a serious safety issue.

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling excessively tired at work, you’re not alone. According to the Conference Board of Canada, 27 percent of Canadian workers say they feel fatigued every day or most days of the workweek. And when asked about their work productivity on those days, nearly half reported “somewhat or significantly worse” productivity and performance.

Fatigue is a major issue in workplaces around the country. And it isn’t just affecting productivity – it’s affecting safety, too.

Defining Fatigue

When we talk about fatigue, we’re not just talking about the occasional mid-afternoon slump where you could really use a nap.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines fatigue as “the state of feeling very tired, weary, or sleepy resulting from insufficient sleep, prolonged mental or physical work, or extended periods of stress or anxiety.” There are two types: acute and chronic.

  • Acute fatigue is the result of short-term sleep loss or short periods of heavy physical or mental work. The effects are not ongoing and can generally be reversed with sleep and relaxation.
  • Chronic fatigue, on the other hand, is a constant and severe state of tiredness that can’t be fixed by rest. While the specific cause isn’t known, symptoms are flu-like, last six months or more, and can interfere with certain activities.

Studies suggest that fatigue is made worse by factors such as:

  • Dim lighting
  • High temperatures
  • High noise levels
  • High comfort
  • Tasks that have to be sustained for a long time
  • Long, repetitive, boring, or monotonous tasks

Is Fatigue Really a Workplace Issue?

In a single word: absolutely.

Fatigue is a form of impairment, and research shows that staying awake for long periods without adequate rest produces a similar effect to increased blood alcohol levels. As one study reports:

  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake is equivalent to a BAC of 0.08 (the legal limit for impaired driving in Canada)
  • 24-25 hours awake is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10

WorksafeBC notes that the risk of making a mistake while on the job increases significantly if workers have less than the average 7.5 hours of sleep or are awake for more than 17 consecutive hours. And while some mistakes may not be of much significance, others can have costly consequences for the worker, his or her coworkers, and the business as a whole.

Unfortunately, statistics that directly measure how many accidents, injuries, or mistakes happen due to fatigue are hard to come by. Since fatigue levels are difficult to quantify, it’s nearly impossible to isolate the effect it has on accident and injury rates.

Experts suggest that most workplace accidents occur during the hours that people tend to want to sleep – between midnight and 6:00 am, and between 1:00 pm and 3:00 p m. And a study from the U.S. Department of Transportation found that working the night shift increases an individual’s accident risk by 11 percent.

Fatigue influences hazard exposures by:

  • Reducing physical and mental function
  • Impairing concentration, judgment, and reaction time
  • Decreasing motivation
  • Increasing risk-taking behaviour

Businesses also suffer, with studies reporting a number of costly effects related to fatigue:

  • Increased sick time, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • Reduced productivity and performance
  • Higher medical costs
  • Increased incident rates

While fatigue can have an impact on anyone, most studies have focused on shift workers, healthcare professionals, and drivers. Those most at risk include workers whose jobs involve putting in long hours for many days in a row while sometimes being exposed to harsh environmental conditions (such as inclement weather, excessive noise, and even heavy mental loads). People who work multiple jobs are also at high risk of fatigue.

Recognizing Fatigue in the Workplace

It’s not always easy to spot fatigue in an employee, and in many cases the onus is on the worker to recognize the symptoms.

Signs to look out for include:

  • Weariness
  • Tiredness or sleepiness (including nodding off and falling asleep against your will)
  • Irritability
  • Reduced alertness and concentration
  • Memory issues
  • Lack of motivation
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased susceptibility to illness

If you notice these signs and symptoms in yourself or someone else, it’s important to address it immediately.

What Employers Can Do to Help

As an employer, you can’t control your workers’ sleep habits, but you can provide a work atmosphere conducive to reducing fatigue and support workers getting enough rest between shifts.

Create a Comfortable Atmosphere

You want to strike a balance: the workplace should not create discomfort, but it also shouldn’t be so comfortable that workers are tempted to fall asleep. Good lighting and a comfortable temperature are especially important. If possible, noise levels should be kept reasonable throughout shifts.

Vary Work Tasks

Since repetitive, boring tasks can exacerbate fatigue, employers should make an effort to vary workers’ tasks as much as possible. This keeps workers more engaged and interested in the work throughout their shift.

Establish Regular Eating Times for Workers

Skipping meals or eating at irregular times can provoke fatigue and food cravings. Make sure workers have regularly scheduled times to take their meals and breaks – and enforce the breaks to make sure workers are getting the rest they need. You may even consider offering prepared meals or a variety of healthy snacks.

Offer Education and Training

Employers should include fatigue and its associated risks in their safety training to create awareness of the effects of fatigue, how to prevent it, and strategies for staying alert. Posters and other visual materials can also remind workers to get enough rest (see In Sight, In Mind: Reinforcing Safety Policies and Procedures to learn more).

Use Overtime Sparingly

While overtime is sometimes unavoidable, it shouldn’t become an everyday occurrence. Many workers fail to take enough time off because of financial strain, and overtime pay can be tempting. Limit the amount of time employees can work in any given week, and keep track of how many hours they have worked to ensure they’re given enough time to rest.

Provide Employee Support

Finally, it’s critical to foster a workplace culture where workers feel comfortable expressing their concerns. Reinforce the fact that there’s no shame in needing time off and make sure there are open lines of communication between management and workers.

Conclusion

Fatigue is more than just feeling like you need a nap. It’s a serious workplace concern that affects the health and safety of employees – and it’s arguably an issue that should be addressed by all levels of government and public health officials.

Recognizing fatigue as a workplace issue and doing your part to combat it is an important step in protecting your workers – and your business.

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