Fatigue – the silent killer

The space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off.
The space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off.

Fatigue is more than just tiredness. In the workplace it is a potential hazard – one that employers should proactively strive to manage. The first step to tackling this growing issue is understanding exactly what it is.

In short, fatigue is mental or physical exhaustion that prevents a person from functioning normally. It’s a warning sign that more rest is needed.

Physical symptoms include feeling tired, falling asleep without meaning to (“micro” sleeps), loss of appetite, headaches and reduced coordination. Red watery eyes can become sore and fatigue sufferers can be more susceptible to sickness.

Apart from the physical symptoms, fatigue can also affects a person’s mental wellbeing. It can cause irritability, short tempers, difficulty concentrating and wandering thoughts. Additionally, lack of motivation, difficulty making decisions, emotional extremes and slow reaction times can also occur.

In the workplace, fatigue can lead to errors, ill-health, injury and accidents.

Elements of fatigue have been attributed to some of the world’s worst disasters, including the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the explosion of US space shuttle Challenger.

The mental and physical demands of a role, such as concentrating for extended periods of time, performing repetitive or mundane tasks, or work that requires continued physical effort, are underlying factors in the workplace that can lead to fatigue.

Adequate sleep is a very important factor in reducing fatigue. There are a plethora of reasons that can affect one’s duration and quality of sleep. Shift work, for example, has been shown to affect an employee’s body clock and contribute to fatigue, especially if systems are not in place to minimise the effects.

More than 3.5million people in the UK are employed as shift workers and this number includes some of the most crucial members of society, occupying roles in emergency services, healthcare, transport, utilities, and manufacturing, including the oil, gas and chemical industries.

So what can employers do to minimise the effects of work and fatigue on their employees?

Firstly, employers could undertake workforce consultations, as well as put in place company policies that address working hours and overtime.

For example, shift-swapping can reduce the impact of extended working hours. Secondly, modifying the working environment can be a good approach, by providing good lighting, comfortable temperatures and reducing noise levels. Where possible, demanding, dangerous and/or safety-critical work should be avoided during the night, the early hours of the morning, and towards the end of long shifts.

Thirdly, employers can reinforce their employees’ efforts to adopt healthy lifestyles through health promotion campaigns, or by considering on-site catering options, providing gym facilities and implementing wellness activities. For example,
supporting nutritious diets, increased exercise, and avoiding tobacco or alcohol can help combat fatigue.

By putting in place a few simple measures, employers can adequately manage the risks of fatigue, and both employers and employees can – together – reap the rewards.