The Cost of Fatigue

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers experience fatigue. Why should employers care?

Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness, exhaustion or lack of energy. Fatigue diminishes alertness, slows reactions, impairs decision-making abilities and reduces productivity. It can also affect a person’s mental and physical health…and an employer’s healthcare costs.

How Fatigue Affects Health

Fatigue can harm mental health by:Construction worker sleeping outdoors on the job

  • Increasing mood swings.
  • Impairing judgment.
  • Decreasing adaptability to certain situations.
  • Heightening sense of threat.
  • Increasing anxiety or depression.
  • Increasing the chances of mental illness.

Fatigue can harm physical health by:

  • Reducing eye-hand coordination.
  • Causing weight gain.
  • Causing pain (e.g., backaches, headaches).
  • Making an individual unable to relax (e.g., cause restless sleep, provoke heightened alert response).
  • Causing gastrointestinal problems (e.g., loss of appetite, abdominal distress or ulcers).
  • Damaging the cardiovascular system (e.g., causing heart disease, arteriosclerosis or congestive heart failure).

Worker fatigue can also lead to lost productivity. Total lost productive time averaged 5.6 hours per week for workers with fatigue, compared to 3.3 hours for their counterparts without fatigue. Even when they were working, workers with fatigue symptoms had much lower rates of productivity than their sprightly counterparts — mainly due to low concentration and increased time needed to accomplish tasks.

Just as importantly, fatigue can lead to accidents. According to Clockwork Consultants, a UK-based company that helps enterprises manage fatigue risk, fatigued employees are also three times more likely to have an accident at work.

Recognizing Fatigue

Fatigue has many causes. It can result from physical or mental exertion, lack of sleep, stress, depression, use of certain medications or alcohol. It can also result from a physical condition or illness, such as anemia, heart disease, diabetes or thyroid disease. No accurate measures of fatigue exist, so how can you tell if a worker is becoming dangerously fatigued?

Work Safe Alberta, a public/private initiative to reduce injuries and improve safety, lists these physical signs and symptoms of fatigue:

  • Tiredness
  • Sleepiness, including falling asleep against the individual’s will (micro sleeps)
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Giddiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • An increased susceptibility to illness

What should you do if you notice symptoms of fatigue in one of your workers? Asking about his/her health could violate privacy. However, if the worker has been involved in accidents, near-misses or his/her productivity has suffered, you can use those as reasons to bring up fatigue as a possible cause. When workers with regular daytime shifts experience fatigue for two weeks or longer, they may need to see a doctor.

When shift workers experience fatigue, it could be time to re-examine your scheduling practices. Are workers getting enough time between shifts to recuperate? Do night workers have frequent rest breaks? Have you optimized night-time working conditions to minimize sleepiness?

Organizations can take several wellness initiatives to address the causes and effects of fatigue in the workplace:

Organizations should adopt a variety of methods to make themselves “fatigue safe.” The most common include:

  • Offer special training for workers, particularly shift workers, to help them understand their personal levels of fatigue.
  • Develop “fatigue safe” work schedules, including compliance with any applicable regulations.
  • Develop fatigue risk management policies and procedures.
  • Offer “nap rooms” or quiet rooms for employees to rest in.
  • Promote exercise by offering an exercise room or discounted fitness club memberships and flexible scheduling to allow employees to exercise. Exercise breaks can help counteract fatigue brought on by monotonous or repetitive work and improve alertness, along with improving general health.

Please comment in the field below if you have more suggestions on addressing fatigue and other workplace wellness problems.

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