The Hidden Costs of Employee Fatigue: How to Manage and Mitigate the Risks
— April 28th, 2023
"Am I suffering from fatigue… or am I just tired?”
This is a question many of us have asked ourselves after a long week at work or a sleepless night. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a significant difference between feeling tired and cranky, and experiencing genuine fatigue. Understanding the distinction is crucial, as employee fatigue can have a major impact on workplace productivity, safety, and overall staff well-being.
It is possibly easier to start by defining what fatigue is not. It is not tiredness or sleepiness. It is not boredom or ennui. It is not a feeling that passes after a nap or a night of sleep. It is, in fact, a distinct symptom of sleep disruption that can manifest even when a person gets sufficient sleep. In other words—waking up feeling exhausted on a regular basis, a continued lack of energy, and a complete absence of any motivation.
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Or as the NHS puts it, “Fatigue is when the tiredness is often overwhelming and isn’t relieved by sleep and rest.”
Let’s dig into this important yet often overlooked topic.
What is Employee Fatigue?
Employee fatigue comes in a few guises—physical, mental, and emotional. Some signs of fatigue can be obvious, while others are less visible, making them more difficult to identify and manage.
Physical fatigue follows periods of intense physical exertion, for example, strenuous labor or extended periods of sleeplessness. People who work in construction, manufacturing, healthcare, and emergency services can be particularly susceptible. But we can also include some professions on this list that you may not expect–chefs, drivers, retail workers, electricians—anyone who has a physically demanding job.
Mental fatigue can occur if a person endures long periods of mental activity or overstimulation. This could be because of working intensely to a tight deadline. It can also happen if someone regularly works long hours without adequate breaks or needs more regular sleep. Mental health issues, where someone is dealing with daily anxiety and stress, can also lead to mental exhaustion.
Emotional fatigue is similar in some ways to mental fatigue. However, where mental fatigue affects a person’s cognitive ability, emotional fatigue affects their emotional state or ability to manage their emotions. For example, bereavement is a common cause of emotional fatigue.
Importance of Addressing Fatigue in the Workplace
There are hidden costs associated with worker fatigue, mainly stemming from absenteeism and productivity losses. However, more worryingly, employee fatigue has been linked to serious workplace injuries, accidents, and several long-term health problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and mental health issues. At the extreme end, fatigue has been studied extensively in key industries such as transportation, chemical, and nuclear due to the potential for catastrophic losses.
Fatigue management is essential. An effective fatigue management program centers around education, awareness, responsibility, and monitoring. The best programs can be found in those workplaces that are open to change and committed to ensuring employee well-being.
What are the Leading Causes of Employee Fatigue?
Many things can contribute to employee fatigue, but here are some common culprits.
- Long working hours without sufficient breaks
- Irregular shift patterns and not enough rest periods between shifts
- Long periods of stress (such as working to tight deadlines or in a stressful work environment)
- Heavy workloads for extended periods (this may occur in a workplace with staff shortages)
- Lack of good quality sleep. Most people need between six to eight hours of sleep each night. Interrupted sleep, periods of insomnia, or shift working schedules can all affect this.
What Are the Risks for Businesses?
Fatigue can and does lead to accidents and injuries in the workplace. In fact, 13% of workplace injuries happen due to employee fatigue. This figure is even more worrying when we look at atypical working shifts with a direct increase in accident rates. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) found that accidents rose by 18% during evening shifts and by 30% during night shifts.
People working evening and night shifts will naturally have different sleep patterns to a 9-5 worker. These irregular hours can disrupt a person’s natural circadian rhythm leading them to suffer from physical and mental fatigue. In these states, coordination, motor skills, and cognitive function can all be affected.
Workplace fatigue should not be underestimated. Some of the most notorious workplace accidents in history—the 2005 BP Texas City oil refinery explosion and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—cite fatigue as a contributing factor.
The health and safety impact of employee fatigue on a business are well documented, but there is also a hidden cost. In fact, quite a high cost. The National Safety Council suggests that a typical business with a 1,000-strong workforce can lose as much as $1 million annually to issues related to employee fatigue: a quarter ($272,000) is lost as a result of absenteeism. At the same time, $776,000 is due to presenteeism, where an employee is physically at work but is not functioning to their full potential. In the UK, 40% of employees have sleep issues, and an estimated 200,000 working days are lost each year due to inadequate sleep.
How to Manage Fatigue in the Workplace
It can be challenging to identify workplace fatigue preemptively. Unfortunately, fatigue is often detected only after an incident or injury occurs. Education, training, and vigilance are vital in monitoring fatigue levels. But not all signs of fatigue are apparent. Ongoing monitoring by an educated occupational health and safety team can be key in combating workplace fatigue.
Workplace fatigue risk assessment form: learn to identify the early warning signs of fatigue through a targeted form. Your wellness officer can create a series of questions to assess the likelihood and severity of fatigue-related incidents in your workplace. Based on the answers to these questions, the risk level can be assessed, and mitigation strategies put in place. These might include adjusting work schedules, providing more frequent breaks, implementing ergonomic solutions, or educating and training employees on how to manage fatigue.
Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI): although this is a scientifically developed measure of burnout, we know that burnout is a by-product of mental and emotional fatigue. The MBI typically consists of 22-25 questions that assess the three dimensions of burnout. The questions are scored on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from "never" to "every day.” Based on the scores, individuals can be classified as having low, moderate, or high levels of burnout in each dimension, as well as an overall grade of burnout.
Regular employee surveys and check-ins: check in with employees regularly on their well-being. Educate your managers, empower them to open up the conversation, and encourage employees to come forward if they feel strained or under too much pressure.
Fatigue Management Methods
Managing fatigue in the workplace starts with establishing a healthy, safe, and responsible culture. Employers and employees can work together to identify and manage fatigue levels. Leadership training, a focus on well-being, and helping employees to prioritize their mental and physical health all create a solid foundation.
With the global rise in workplace burnout, well-being and fatigue have become more pressing issues for businesses everywhere. On a positive note, fatigue is now being taken more seriously, and global companies are learning how to better manage its effects.
Here are seven best practices for handling employee fatigue in the workplace.
1. Introduce sleep initiatives
These programs help to educate employers and employees about the consequences of fatigue and how to spot it early on.
2. Develop employee wellness programs
Teach employees how to make better decisions for their well-being, including providing access to health and fitness programs.
3. Monitor staff levels
Understaffed workplaces can lead to employees working longer hours, taking on extra shifts, and being more stressed.
4. Optimize shift work hours
Pay attention to work schedules and ensure employees, particularly shift workers, get adequate breaks between shifts.
5. Consider flexible working options
Allow more flexible work hours, including hybrid or even four-day weeks, to promote a better work-life balance.
6. Encourage employees to rest and take time off
Make it easy for employees to take their paid time off, introduce mental health days, and educate them on the importance of regular breaks.
7. Shore up health and safety protocols:
Get proactive about health and safety by doing regular risk assessments.
Technology can also help—making it easier and more intuitive to manage workplace fatigue and worker safety. Scheduling software can ensure employers and employees abide by a defined set of hours or shifts. Fatigue monitoring tools can link in with scheduling software, task management software, and safety processes to give managers a complete picture of worker activity. Surveys can help track employees’ feelings about new technologies, sleep initiatives, and general wellness programs.
Good Communication is Central to Managing Workplace Fatigue
We’ve discussed how a responsible culture can improve awareness of workplace fatigue and manage its effects. Central to that culture is effective communication. A good internal communications strategy will go a long way toward keeping employees informed and building general awareness.
With clear and regular messaging, businesses can build a workforce that can recognize the early warning signs of fatigue among their team members and themselves. Platforms like Poppulo’s Harmony, which can deliver tailored, memorable communications, are ideal for HR, Comms, and Health & Safety teams to supplement their other fatigue management efforts.
Employee fatigue is a serious issue that can have negative consequences for both employees and organizations. So, is it a question of workplace culture? To a large extent—yes.
In a workplace that values long hours, constant availability, and high productivity at all costs, employees often feel pressure to work beyond their capacity, leading to fatigue and burnout. On the other hand, in a workplace that prioritizes work-life balance, flexible schedules, and employee well-being, employees are more likely to flourish.
Remember, investing in the health and happiness of employees is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business. So, let’s prioritize employee fatigue management and create safe, healthy, and productive workplaces for everyone.