Many industries rely on workers being physically and mentally alert however workplace fatigue is on the rise as people work longer hours often under increasingly difficult conditions and stress brought about by COVID-19.

This article explores common causes of fatigue and offers key recommendations for managers and staff.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a state of physical and/or mental exhaustion which reduces a person’s ability to perform work safely and effectively. Muscles can recover with a rest but the brain can only recover with sleep.

There are various causes of fatigue including:

  • Roster patterns: Some rosters cause more fatigue than others, especially those that involve early morning starts and have more than three consecutive nights.
  • Sleep problems: Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep to stay alert and perform well. It is not just the number of hours that matters but also the quality of sleep. Broken sleep patterns, day time sleep and some sleeping disorders can all disrupt both the quality and quantity of sleep.
  • Environmental conditions: Climate extremes (such as working outside in winter), noise and handling vibrating tools place demands on workers and increase fatigue.
  • Physical work demands: Some industries, such as construction work, can be physically demanding which can increase muscle fatigue.
  • Mental demands can also increase fatigue, such as tasks that require periods of intense concentration, problem solving or vigilance.
  • Emotional well-being: People experiencing emotional fatigue often say they are exhausted stuck or trapped.  This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and feeling overwhelmed.

Does Fatigue Matter?
If you are working from home and make a fatigue related mistake it may not matter but imagine the consequences of fatigue in the transport industry or other safety critical tasks where a moment of inattention can have disastrous consequences.

Errors and Near Misses and Poor Performance Observed By Shiftworkers Due to Fatigue.

  • “I had worked four nights in a row and had an accident on the way home after the last night shift.”  
  • “I was disciplined for accidentally falling asleep at work”
  • “I made a mistake giving out medication”
  • “Our control room operators tend do get sleepy between 3 and 5 am”
  • “I saw one of my colleagues almost get electrocuted due to sleepiness”
  • “I work at a port and saw someone try and stack a container in a space that was too small”
  • “I fly a small plane and did not accurately assess the weather and took off in unsuitable conditions.”
  • “I rolled my milk tanker”
  • “Snappy with colleagues”
  • “Failed to notice emergency light on dash board”
  • “I stood up quickly and hit my head on a steel shelf and sustained a concussion”
  • “Missing defective product as it goes by”
  • “Fail to follow safety protocols at work”

Who is Responsible for Managing Fatigue?

Everyone is responsible for managing work place fatigue. Managers are responsible for providing safe work places that includes making sure the roster is fatigue safe. Staff are responsible for turning up fit for work. That includes having obtained adequate sleep to work safely.

What Managers Can Do. 

Managers can help reduce workplace fatigue by making sure staff have been educated about sleep management and how to reduce fatigue risk. They also need to monitor Rostered Hours of Work (RoW) and Actual Hours of Work (AHoW) to make sure workers have time for adequate sleep. Assessing the role of fatigue in all accidents and incidents is recommended especially where night shift is involved.  Managers also need to regularly review the fatigue management policy.

What Staff Can Do.

Staff can make sure they have obtained adequate sleep to be able to work safely. They also need to be able to recognize the signs of fatigue and have an action plan to follow when fatigue becomes unsafe.  Staff need to be familiar with the organisation’s fatigue management policy and be involved with policy reviews.

Shiftwork Services provides sleep and fatigue education and assists with roster reviews and policy development. For more information contact fiona@shiftwork.co.nz