A 2018 study conducted by the National Safety Council (NSC) reported that 69% of surveyed U.S. workers report being tired while at work. NSC research shows that 13% of workplace injuries can be attributed to fatigue, costing U.S. employers on average more than $130 billion a year in health-related lost productivity. Worker fatigue is something we’ve been hearing about across nearly all industries, but what exactly is it?

Fatigue doesn’t simply mean “sleepiness.” In fact, many signs of workplace fatigue are subtler and more dangerous than drowsiness. There are three distinct types of worker fatigue—mental, physical and subjective—which are interrelated in that one state can lead to another. However, it is important to recognize the different types, as the interventions for each vary.

Mental fatigue is reduced cognitive functioning and mental capacity experienced after prolonged cognitive activity or stress. This can in turn lead to physical and subjective exhaustion. Depending on the severity, a short break, change in task, brief exercise or more sleep may be restorative. More mentally fatigued workers may need extended time off or a temporary change in responsibilities.

Physical fatigue is the result of demanding or repetitive physical labor, which can lead to an exhausted body, injuries and task impairment. Frequent breaks, hydration and proper nutrition can help alleviate symptoms of physical fatigue.

Subjective fatigue includes feelings of tiredness and drowsiness. Night-shift workers may feel sleepy due to disruption of circadian rhythm, and day-shift workers may feel tired on the job after a poor night’s sleep. Workers may also experience subjective fatigue when performing repetitive tasks.

Fatigue at work can affect an employee’s ability to effectively plan, communicate and make sound decisions. It may also result in reduced overall productivity, vigilance, reaction time, memory and ability to handle stress, as well as increased errors in judgment. Because workplace exhaustion may result in reduced on-the-job performance, employee fatigue screening is important. However, the nuances of all these different components of workplace exhaustion can make assessing employee fatigue very difficult for an employer— and even employees themselves.

Many environmental, behavioral and task-related factors affect employee fatigue levels. Some are straightforward and can be controlled by employers adjusting work hours, break time or highly repetitive work tasks. Some factors are more subtle, such as lack of adequate hydration during the workday or improper lighting, temperature or noise in the workplace. An employee’s lifestyle, personal stress or working multiple jobs can inhibit access to restorative sleep. In some cases, it’s a combination of multiple factors.

For employers, identifying employee fatigue is difficult, since it has many aspects. Further complicating the situation, employees may be reluctant to express their feelings of fatigue at work due to concerns around job security or simply because they don’t see it affecting their job performance or safety.

The NSC found that 90% of employers recognized that fatigue has a consequential impact on their organization, whereas 72% of employees see fatigue as a safety concern. Remarkably, one 2018 study by the NSC found that only 66% of employees in the utilities industry believed that it was unsafe to drive while tired.

Signs of employee fatigue are often subtle until they cause an injury, accident or workplace disruption. Employers can try to be proactive about screening for fatigue by implementing a fatigue-risk-management program. An effective program may include all or some of these elements:

  • Optimized Schedules: Employees with varying schedules and frequent night shifts face some of the biggest risks of fatigue. By creating regular, predictable schedules, keeping shifts under 12 hours, giving adequate time off between shifts and providing frequent shift breaks, employees are less likely to experience fatigue while performing their jobs.
  • Onsite Risk Reduction: Make sure employees are aware of and follow required rest breaks. For jobs that require repetitive tasks, rotating tasks amongst staff can help reduce mental and physical fatigue. Additionally, posting self-screening signage throughout the workplace and educating employees about what contributes to fatigue may help mitigate risk.
  • Managed Overtime: Employers can create guidelines around acceptable work hours and overtime limits, as well as rules about not assigning safety-sensitive tasks to workers on duty more than 13 hours and implementing extra monitoring or breaks for these employees.

  • Sleep Education: Remind and educate employees about the importance of getting the recommended amount of sleep. This can include offering sleep disorder screening and making sleep education part of corporate wellness programs.
  • Regulate Attestations: Employees rate themselves on factors related to fatigue, such as amount of recent sleep, physical stressors or mental stress that may affect job performance. Employees should be assured that they won’t face disciplinary action if their scores don’t meet a satisfactory level.
  • Incorporate Fatigue-Monitoring Technology: Wearable devices or computer applications can help assess levels of worker fatigue, physical stressors and overall mental awareness while on the job. Because fatigued workers are often the last to recognize their impairment, an objective form of measurement that removes the human judgment component can be helpful. This type of technology can range from psychomotor tests, which measure the relationship between cognitive functions and physical movement and assess things like whether pilots can safely fly or long-haul truckers can safely drive, to simpler monitoring devices like smart watches or fitness trackers, where employees monitor their own sleep habits and health.

Employers are advised to create a safety culture that educates workers on how fatigue can impact workplace safety. It’s important that employers have systems in place to recognize worker fatigue along with strategies to relieve fatigued workers as necessary. Both employers and employees must acknowledge that exhaustion—particularly in safety-critical industries—has much higher risks than lower productivity.

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