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Fatigue Facts

by Carolyn Preiss

Fatigue is an experience of mental or physical weariness that results in reduced alertness, feelings of tiredness and lethargy that can lead to a whole range of emotions.

Fatigued employees commonly become stressed and anxious which ultimately affects performance levels: their reactions times are slowed, their vigilance is reduced and their level of concentration decreased; accidents, errors and injuries both at work and on the roads will be more likely.

Fatigue has been proven to be a major factor in many road accidents. In September 2008, the National Fatigue Reform was implemented for the heavy vehicle transport industry, significantly increasing the awareness of fatigue. Transport operators now must comply with certain options for driving-hours; their schedulers and drivers must maintain accurate records to ensure the drivers are never fatigued. What’s more, all parties in the 'Chain of Responsibility' are now held responsible for taking ‘all reasonable steps’ to proactively minimize the risk of driver fatigue.

Causes of Fatigue

The causes of fatigue are multiple and fatigue is now recognised as an emerging Occupational Health and Safety risk.

Fatigue – An Emerging OH&S Risk.

Australia now has over 1.4 million people employed as shift-workers. We’re also witnessing trends of employees working long, irregular or non-traditional hours. Look at the facts:

  • Since 1985, there has been a 22% increase in men working very long hours.
  • The latest ABS statistics (2005) show 30 % of men and 16% of women are working more than 50 hours per week.
  • 27% of all workers are expected to work additional hours or overtime - some paid, some unpaid.
  • Currently 28% of ‘single job holders’ are regularly working between the hours of 1900-0700.
  • Currently, it’s thought 56% of ‘multiple job holders’ are working weekdays, weekends and nights (between 1900-0700)

Given these figures, it’s simple to understand why fatigue is now recognised as an important and emerging occupational health and safety risk. The issue requires attention particularly for those organisations that require employee’s to work long, extended or irregular hours.

Lack of sleep – inadequate or poor quality sleep will cause sleep debt which will result in fatigue. The duration, quality and continuity of sleep will affect fatigue and so those working shifts or non-traditional hours may find it is not always possible to get adequate restorative sleep. Undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, are also a common cause of sleep debt and fatigue.

Body clock The human body operates on a natural biological cycle of 24-26 hours called circadian rhythms. The circadian pacemaker is situated in the human brain. Many of our bodily processes operate on circadian rhythms such as the digestive system, the sleep/wake cycle, the production of some hormones and even our body temperature. There are many factors that may throw the body clock out of balance. Factors such as working long/irregular hours, shift-work, having disrupted sleep at night or those required to travel frequently.

Work hours and conditions - working long and/or irregular hours (shiftwork) can limit your opportunity to sleep and recover properly. Factors that can cause fatigue at work include: High levels of Stress/Anxiety/Pressure or heavy workloads. It can also be caused by the actual task require. Most people recognise that physically hard or demanding work is likely to lead to fatigue however the extreme is also likely - boring, repetitious or monotonous tasks can cause feelings of lethargy and tiredness, resulting in a lack of motivation and fatigue. Tasks requiring a high level of concentration or attention to details are likely to cause fatigue; and the working environment, an extremely hot workplace for instance, can create fatigue in workers as can a workplace with very low morale.

Family and social responsibilities - it can be very easy to blame work as the sole cause of fatigue however, that is unlikely. Many people have difficulty maintaining a synergy between their work and life particularly when working long, extended or irregular hours. Everyone has these responsibilities although they can vary significantly. Juggling work with the demanding role of raising children, combined with the challenges of an aging population where many people have elderly parents to assist and care for and all can contribute to fatigue.

Next time: Managing fatigue at work and home.

Carolyn Preiss is the Director of Alert Fatigue Management which offers training programs to inform management and staff about managing fatigue in the workplace.