workplace fatigue

Workplace fatigue is an area that is coming under even more scrutiny since the onset of COVID-19. Where organisations have always been concerned about workplace fatigue and recognise it as a hazard with possibly severe consequences, the pandemic is highlighting the rise in fatigue-related working conditions. Restructuring, shift compressions, longer working hours and higher demands are reducing hours of sleep and quality of sleep, and increasing physical and mental wear and tear. Employees at are risk of mental burnout, physical injuries and impaired concentration levels that may lead to workplace accidents.

For this article, we take a look at a recently revised chapter on workplace fatigue, published as part of The Core Body of Knowledge for Generalist OHS Professionals. This research is particularly useful because it looks at workplace fatigue through a risk management lens to outline the hazards and suggest appropriate controls. We also discuss the fatigue hazards associated with operating heavy mobile equipment, on-call work, the gig economy and flexible working times. Using the strategies suggested in the article, and by taking a holistic physical and psychological perspective, organisations can adapt control measures to manage workplace fatigue.

What is Workplace Fatigue?

Workplace fatigue is defined as the

decreased capability to perform mental or physical work, produced as a function of inadequate sleep, circadian disruption or time on task.

When managing workplace fatigue, it is essential to understand that fatigue and tiredness are not the same. People who deal with excessive daytime sleepiness are more likely to fall asleep while in a waiting room, sitting in a meeting, or their vehicle. People who deal with fatigue don’t generally fall asleep in these situations. However, they do struggle to get through normal daily activities. They may feel weary, weak, lack motivation, have issues with memory and productivity, have no interest in social situations, and they can develop depressive thoughts.

Fatigue is a consequence of around-the-clock operations, inconsistent work schedules, and rapid or frequent time-zone transitions. These working conditions often adversely affect internal circadian rhythms.

Workplace fatigue is a serious hazard. In a recent survey of 1,000 Australian adults

  • 29% report making errors at work because of sleepiness or trouble sleeping,
  • 29% report driving drowsy in the previous month,
  • 20% nodded off while driving, and
  • 5% had a motor vehicle accident in the past year because of drowsy driving.

See our article, Not Enough Sleep: How Do We Manage Worker Fatigue?

Mental Fatigue Affects Hazard Detection

In other research published in 2019 that measures the level of mental fatigue of construction workers operating heavy mobile equipment, the results show that hazard detection skills reduce. The study finds that the more tired the operator becomes, the less likely they are to look in their rear vision mirror or around them. After 1 hour operating the machine, the operators have an increase in their hazard miss rate, false alarm rate, and reaction time by over 40%. After only 36 minutes operating the machine, their ability to detect hazards drops by 30% compared to what they found when they first sat down.

These results show that after half an hour of operating heavy mobile equipment, workers are only noticing 70% of the hazards around them.

While operating equipment, mental fatigue makes workers reluctant to pay more attention to the ‘edges’ of their direct vision. After 36 minutes, they begin to look at only what is directly in front of them.

They fail to look in their rear vision mirrors or to the sides of the machine because these actions require additional head movements. Operators are reluctant to use the extra effort to scan the whole of their surroundings. Mental fatigue makes it difficult for operators to quickly detect potential peripheral hazards.

When operators experience workplace fatigue, they are more likely to quickly glance at their surroundings, rather than directly observe the hazards surrounding their equipment. This behaviour can lead to missing hazards and a decrease in response times to risks of collision or rolling.

See our article, Does Mental Fatigue Impact Worker’s Hazard Detection?

On-Call Work Interrupts Sleep and Leads to Impairment

On-call work can be highly taxing to psychological health. These work arrangements require employees to be available on an ‘as-needed’ basis, generally after hours and at night, or in an emergency response scenario. Often on-call periods are scheduled over and above an employee’s normal work hours and can flow into the next days working hours. Because of the extended work period of on-call arrangements they have the potential to limit recovery time between shifts, resulting in long working hours, and disrupted sleep; all of which increase workplace fatigue. On-call work can disrupt sleep even when a call to attend doesn’t occur because the employee can’t switch off.

On-call work can lead to impaired mood, clinical decision regret, increased errors and near-misses. There is an increased risk of psychological health problems including depression and anxiety. Also, physical health may be affected including issues with hearing, skin problems, back pain, muscular pain, headache, eye fatigue, and abdominal pain.

Employees who are on-call may experience sleep inertia which is a period of grogginess and impaired performance for up to 30 minutes after waking. Sleep inertia is a significant safety concern for on-call workers who may be required to perform time- or safety-critical tasks immediately upon waking. Therefore, it is important to provide adequate waking time before performing high-risk tasks.

Interestingly, new research is suggesting that some on-call workers report an ‘adrenaline burst’ upon waking to a call that helps them to immediately perform. In a recent study, on-call workers created a stressful experience upon waking to help to reduce sleep inertia and stimulate adrenaline. In this case, they tested using a minor finger-prick blood draw. The effect was an immediate increase in alertness; however, using such a strategy is unlikely to appeal to most people.

The Gig Economy Experiences Regular Fatigue Symptoms

The gig economy also operates on an ‘as-needed’ basis and working hours and times can vary. Examples of gig workers include Uber drivers, fast food delivery drivers and parcel delivery drivers. Recent research has shown that those who drive for work in the gig economy report increased fatigue, high physical and mental demand, long work hours and often work at night. The results show that:

  • 16% reported feeling so fatigued that they struggled to remain awake while driving,
  • 42% had been involved in an accident involving vehicle damage, and
  • 10% had been in an accident where someone had been hurt.

Flexible Working Times Impact Rest and Recovery Time

The COVID-19 induced flexible working hours and times are providing employees with options that they haven’t had in the past. They can now work from home and outside of traditional workplace environments. They can also choose the hours that they work each day.

For some, the added flexibility is a benefit and helps to negotiate around family and personal needs. While there are positive outcomes associated with flexible working time, these arrangements may also limit opportunities for rest and recovery between work periods, and result in workers feeling unable to disconnect.

Fatigue Risk Management Systems

Many companies are implementing a formal fatigue management program and use Fatigue Risk Management Systems. These systems monitor breaks between shifts to ensure employees are getting sufficient sleep and are monitored for fatigue-related issues including sleep disorders. The system monitors the controls to minimise the impact of fatigue-related errors that occur, and how procedures are periodically assessed to ensure their effectiveness.

Where an organisation has an established Fatigue Risk Management System the role of the health and safety professional is to promote and monitor adherence. They can achieve this through regular workshops, distribution of materials, and by encouraging and facilitating open and routine discussions about fatigue.

If your company doesn’t have an established Fatigue Risk Management System you can conduct a risk assessment, and develop policies and procedures about your approach to workplace fatigue management. Training sessions, materials and open discussions about the causes, consequences and experience of fatigue are very important to support your efforts to address workplace fatigue as a hazard.

Open communication and formal training about fatigue are two of the best ways to create a supportive safety culture in which fatigue can be effectively managed as a safety hazard.

Not only should you monitor working hours and breaks between shifts, but you should also understand the behavioural symptoms of fatigue. Symptoms include reduced alertness, lack of energy, inability to concentrate and impaired mood.

If you have a fatigue-related incident you must investigate, analyse and report. From here you have an opportunity to examine your fatigue risk management controls and refine or reinforce.

See our article, Managing Fatigue Through COVID-19.

Train About Workplace Fatigue

Employees must understand the impact of fatigue on their mental and physical state. Tap into Safety helps employees managing fatigue to understand the signs and symptoms of workplace fatigue through the mental health training modules on the platform.

The Fatigue Management training module explains the difference between tiredness and fatigue symptoms and explores worker fatigue through the desire to make additional money by working longer hours and taking on extra shifts. It covers the issues of working day and night shifts and the disruptive effects on sleep.

The Workload and Burnout module looks at the stress of heavy workloads and how to negotiate them with your team. Many of us tend to power through and complete backed-up work-loads; however, if this is a continual requirement, we can experience burnout, apathy and withdrawal, with long-term impacts on our mental health.

To Conclude

Workplace fatigue is a critical safety and mental health hazard and organisations need to address the risk as part of their WHS obligations. One way to do this is to use a risk management framework to monitor the hours worked and the time between shifts. You should also understand the behavioural symptoms of fatigue including reduced alertness, lack of energy, an inability to concentrate and impaired mood.

If you have a fatigue-related incident you must investigate, analyse and report. From here you have an opportunity to examine your fatigue risk management controls and refine or reinforce. Open communication and formal training about fatigue are two of the best ways to create a supportive safety culture in which fatigue can be effectively managed as a safety hazard.

This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.

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