How to Manage Fatigue in the Workplace

Even before the mass office exodus, fatigue was among the most prevalent workplace challenges. The National Safety Council reports that over 43% of workers are sleep deprived, and those most at risk are those working long or irregular hours. More than a simple feeling of sleepiness, fatigue is a persistent syndrome resulting from prolonged exhaustion, stress, high levels of exertion, and life circumstances. In the workplace, fatigue limits productivity, and, in some cases, leads to injuries.

What Does Fatigue in the Workplace Look Like?

Fatigued workers display a host of symptoms that result from a lack of quality sleep. Fatigue differs from drowsiness in that individuals may lack the motivation or ability to begin an activity; the person has mental fatigue or difficulty with concentration and memory; and the individual tires easily once an activity has begun. It also can affect emotional regulation, and lead to long-term health problems like heart disease, hypertension, anxiety, and depression.

Studies have shown that fatigue affects people in a way similar to inebriation. Being awake for at least 18 hours is the same as having a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. Likewise, being awake for at least 24 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%, higher than the legal limit for driving in all states.

For some workers, workplace fatigue is practically inevitable. Truck drivers and employees in manufacturing or mining are often subject to fatigue due to long hours, multiple night shifts per week, and the exhausting nature of their work. Medical professionals who work extended shifts experience fatigue at high rates as well, as we have seen due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Add in the changes we have all experienced in regular life — social distancing, a global pandemic, widespread civil unrest, layoffs, increased stress — it is easy to see how life’s stressors exacerbate workplace fatigue.

Recent Strides in Fatigue Management

Fatigue has been a problem for decades, but greater attention has been brought to the issue in recent years. Data collected by the National Safety Council indicates that fatigue costs employers over $136 billion per year in lost productivity alone. Safety innovators have responded to the prevailing fatigue issue by developing a range of tools to identify fatigue before an accident occurs.

AlertMeter identifies fatigue through a one-minute cognitive test that workers take on smartphones or tablets. Taken before or during a shift or before performing a critical task, AlertMeter delivers real-time fatigue data. Intel’s Driver Recognition and Fatigue Detection software works similarly, but is specifically geared towards the transportation and shipping industries. It uses facial recognition technology to detect signs of fatigued, and alerts the driver to take a break when triggered.

What Can Employers Do?

First and foremost, it is important to recognize that we are living in stressful and unprecedented times. Risk for fatigue may be increased. Create a culture with clear communication between management and workers, ensuring that workers understand processes and feel comfortable approaching you. If a worker appears fatigued (i.e. yawning, difficult time keeping eyes open), create a process to relieve workers from their duty to mitigate injury or error. If possible, allow staff time to get sufficient rest and recovery and schedule demanding and monotonous work in shorter shifts. Ultimately reducing fatigue-related incidents comes down to being empathetic and open with your employees.