Workplace fatigue refers to a constant or relapsing and unexplained feeling of physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often leading to a loss of alertness and capacity to perform work duties safely.

Workers who are most likely to experience fatigue include, shift or night workers, fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) workers, on-call/call-back workers and frontline health workers. Additionally, fatigue in safety critical industries such as construction, manufacturing, mining and resources, oil/gas and transport can lead to large-scale and costly consequences.

A report published by Monash University found that ~10,000 serious workplace injuries in Australia can be attributed to a loss of alertness, and can cost Australian businesses upwards of $5 billion annually.

Types of fatigue

Fatigue can present itself in a number of ways - physically, mentally and emotionally.

  • Excessive yawning
  • Slowed blinking or excessive eye-rubbing
  • Reduced hand-eye coordination or slower reflexes
  • Microsleeps (short periods of sleep lasting a few seconds) 
  • Issues with short-term memory
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Impaired decision-making and judgement
  • Difficulty maintaining communications
  • Lapses in attention
  • Unexplained changes in behaviour e.g. arriving late to work
  • Sudden increase in irritable or reserved behaviour
  • Lack of motivation to perform tasks/duties

Consequences of fatigue

Fatigue can directly impact workers’ safety by:

  • Increasing the likelihood of workplace accidents and injuries – particularly when a worker is operating heavy machinery, working at heights or working with hazardous materials
  • Negatively impacting worker health – can increase the likelihood of affected individuals developing conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, reduced fertility and anxiety/depression
  • Decreasing general productivity
  • Negatively impacting employee innovation, creativity and engagement
  • Increasing worker absenteeism

Causes of workplace fatigue

Fatigue can be attributed to several causes, at the organisational and individual levels.

Organisational factors can include:

  • Shift work – strongly associated with sleep loss and disruption to the body’s internal ‘clock’
  • Work schedules – inadequate amount of recovery time between shifts or excessively long shifts
  • Physical environment – uncomfortable working conditions e.g. prolonged work in extreme heat or cold, working with vibrating/noisy machinery or consistently completing physically intense tasks
  • Poor work culture and leadership – directly linked to team morale, motivation and employee satisfaction

Individual factors can be harder to identify in the workplace but can include:

  • Pre-existing medical conditions – anaemia, coeliac disease, coronary heart disease and diabetes among others
  • Medication use – some medications can cause lethargy and drowsiness
  • Infections – flu or COVID-19
  • Stress from family or personal responsibilities – chronic or intense stress is closely associated with anxiety/depression which can cause severe mental and emotional fatigue
  • Feelings of inadequacy in work knowledge and skills

Managing fatigue in the workplace

Optimising work schedules

All persons conducting a business or undertaking have the primary responsibility, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure that workers are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from the business or undertaking.

You can help minimise the risk of developing fatigue in your workplace by:

  • Providing employees with adequate and frequent breaks. Research suggests a short break every ~90 minutes allows employees to maintain focus throughout the workday.
  • Consulting with your employees about the impacts of their current workloads e.g. pace of work, time/length of breaks, suitability of regular work schedules and general feelings towards work responsibilities.
  • Restricting safety critical work between 2:00 am­–6:00 am and 2:00 pm–4:00 pm when the body is most likely to have decreased energy levels/alertness.
  • Ensuring all employees have adequate time to recover between shifts – including time for travel, completing family/personal tasks and restful sleep.
  • Developing a workplace culture that does not promote excessive working hours (>10 hours) and places importance on employee health and wellbeing.
  • Contacting occupational health service providers for further advice (see below).
Employee education

Equipping your employees with the right tools to prevent and manage their fatigue can help minimise the risk of onsite injuries.

Check out our free presentation below which you can use to promote healthier lifestyle habits to your employees during a workshop, seminar or as a quick reminder during staff breaks. The presentation covers signs and symptoms of fatigue, and provides in-depth tips on how employees can improve their sleep health, exercise, diet and caffeine/nicotine/alcohol intake to combat long-term fatigue.

Alternatively, check out our Workplace Health and Wellness Services, where we work alongside your workplace to create tailored health promotion programs for your employees.

Employee health checks

Offering regular health checks to your employees can also offer a range of benefits including, early detection of work or non-work related health issues, increased talent retention and productivity and reduced workplace absenteeism and worker’s compensation.

We offer health checks tailored towards men and women that monitor a wide range of health indicators e.g. bone mass density, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, cancer screenings, diabetes, eye checks, kidney and liver check and mental health.

Managing Fatigue Toolbox Talk

Monash University (2014) Innovative new centre to tackle fatigue-related injury

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