Employee fatigue can be hard to measure, difficult to talk about and tricky to address within a business context. It can also have wide-ranging implications not just for the individual employee but for the wider business as well.
In this article, we will explain what fatigue is (and is not) and why it is essential for companies to manage mental and physical fatigue. We’ll provide tools and ideas to help companies manage workplace fatigue.
What is Fatigue?
According to the NHS, fatigue is a feeling of tiredness or exhaustion not fully relieved by rest. Fatigue can be physical, mental or emotional.
Within the working environment, the Health & Safety Executive use a slightly different definition: fatigue results from prolonged mental or physical exertion; it can affect people’s performance and impair their mental alertness, leading to dangerous errors. This is especially true for employees working with heavy machinery or who drive, but it applies to everyone.
Fatigue is thought to affect around 20% of the general population in the UK, although there have been many studies with different methodologies used. What is known is that fatigue was identified as a significant factor in several serious accidents, including the Space Shuttle Challenger and Chernobyl disasters in 1986, the Clapham Junction rail crash in 1988, and the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Fatigue is not the same as sleepiness or drowsiness, although they may both have the same route cause. With sleepiness or drowsiness, the sleep drives are activated and cause the individual fighting fatigue to fall asleep. With fatigue, those sleep drives are not necessarily activated. An individual with fatigue can feel exhausted but unable to fall asleep.
What is Fatigue Management?
Fatigue management is a general term used to describe the processes, methods or approaches people use to reduce fatigue and manage the negative impact it can have on their lives.
Within a professional context, managing fatigue can also focus on mitigating the risk. Fatigue risk management is a critical component of health and safety for many companies. As a result, fatigue management has cultural and procedural implications for organisations.
Importance of Fatigue Management For Employees
There are two main reasons why fatigue risk management and fatigue research need to be considered by organisations and businesses.
Keeping Employees and the Wider Community Safe
A direct relationship exists between fatigue and a higher likelihood of accidents. Workplace fatigue has been identified as the reason behind some of the worst disasters in living memory, demonstrating that exhausted employees are not just a risk to the business but also to the broader community and even on a global scale in some cases.
Business must take seriously their duty of care to employees and their fatigue levels as part of their overall approach to health and safety.
Employees with workplace fatigue are likely to be less productive due to the influence fatigue has on both mental and physical capabilities. Fatigue reduces the speed of coordination and motor skills, so reaction times are longer. It also makes it harder to concentrate and slows down the time it takes to process information, making mistakes more likely to happen. Fatigue can also cause issues with punctuality and increase absenteeism, as employees are more likely to be ill or need time off to rest. Additionally, fatigue can also be a significant factor in stress, anxiety and depression, all of which naturally reduce productivity.
There is also a link to employee engagement. Employees experiencing fatigue often have less motivation for their job, which leads to decreased engagement and higher turnover rates.
What Causes Fatigue?
Fatigue can affect anyone, regardless of their background, skills and experience. There can be many different causes, including:
Many lifestyle factors can lead to fatigue. Regularly taking recreational drugs, consuming a lot of alcohol, not exercising enough, eating an unhealthy diet and being dehydrated can all contribute to fatigue.
Personal Stress & Mental Health
People do not always realise the physical impact that emotional stress and poor mental health can have. Personal stress such as grief and divorce can lead to insomnia, but the trauma of the loss or change can also create a state of hyper-vigilance which is exhausting to maintain.
Poor mental health can also lead to sleep loss and fatigue. The link between depression and feeling exhausted is well known (fatigue occurs in 90% of people with depression), as being depressed affects our sleep, energy levels, motivation and stress levels. Likewise, anxiety can create fatigue due to the crash once the hormones released in response to the anxiety have left your system. If you experience anxiety repeatedly, it is exhausting for your body.
Long hours, busy schedules and high expectations can all lead to the body and mind being in a constant state of high alert. In response, stress hormones are released into our systems, which can make us anxious, panicky and tense and create sleep problems over time.
Roles that involve work carried out on a repetitive basis that affects posture can lead to fatigue because of the physical stress the body is under, with too much exercise and little time to recover properly. Over time this physical stress can lead to fatigue.
It’s not a great surprise to learn that working hours that do not allow people to sleep at night can lead to fatigue. Our bodies are naturally primed to sleep when it is dark, and while we can adapt to new routines, changing sleep patterns can play havoc with our ability to sleep. Additionally, shift work often involves long hours, and the result can be both mentally and physically demanding (think about nurses and doctors in a hospital, for example), so employees find themselves feeling both exhausted and unable to switch off.
Environmental Factors in the Workplace
The temperature of your workplace, high noise levels and a lack of access to natural light can all make your body uncomfortable. If this occurs regularly, it can cause ongoing stress, leading to fatigue. Many health and safety regulations directly respond to the stress caused by working environments.
Feeling fatigued is the key symptom of several medical conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome but also others such as heart disease, thyroid issues or diabetes, to name just three. It can also be a sign of cancer, and cancer treatment can also leave you tired and exhausted.
Tips For Fatigue Management In The Workplace
The most important area organisations can focus on when it comes to fatigue risk management is ensuring that corporate culture has well-being front and centre. It is hard to measure fatigue, so having good open relationships between leaders and employees and a culture of well-being which celebrates the importance of sleep is vital.
While fatigue can be caused by several factors, having a culture that openly encourages looking after yourself means that employees will feel more comfortable coming forward to ask for help and support when needed. In the long run, this leads to improved productivity and business performance because you retain motivated staff, supported to do their roles to the best of their ability.
The following ideas include dealing with specific issues of employee fatigue and creating a company-wide approach to dealing with fatigue.
- Work with them to identify the cause of their fatigue: understanding what is going on for someone personally allows companies to tailor support to their specific needs, which is more likely to make that support successful.
- Follow policies to provide time for recovery: procedures and policies help ensure that nothing gets forgotten or missed and everyone is treated fairly.
- If appropriate, change schedules where possible and ensure adequate rest breaks: this might sound obvious, but it can be hard to make the necessary changes to reduce fatigue. Ensuring that change can be part of a fatigue management plan is critical to dealing with the cause of fatigue.
- Provide access to practitioners who can support, e.g. occupational therapists and counsellors: this can be harder for smaller businesses, but having a framework in place to provide external as well as internal support for an individual who is struggling with fatigue can help to address the root cause (and get the employee back to their high functioning and productive self).
- Understand the potential risks to your business regarding your employees getting fatigued: this will vary depending on whether you have many shift workers, people using heavy machinery or driving long distances, or employ people in roles that are emotionally very demanding, and so on. The key is to consider the implications of your employees becoming fatigued: what mistakes could get made, and what impact could this have?
- Educate the workforce on the importance of sleep and looking after yourself: promote healthy lifestyles and provide opportunities for the workforce to exercise, eat healthily and have a good work-life balance.
- Encourage leaders to share their personal stories and be good role models for their work-life balance and how they manage fatigue if they experience it or help others handle it.
- Create policies for managing fatigue: these need to include health and safety policies for the workplace, policies for accommodating physical and mental health conditions, and specific policies for managing individual cases of fatigue and a company-wide approach to fatigue risk management. In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive is an excellent place to start if you are looking for guidance.
- Set up a helpline and support for employees suffering from fatigue management: again, for small businesses, a helpline might be hard to establish, but having a dedicated section of an intranet or a specific slack channel to ask for help can make a big difference to whether employees reach out early for assistance.