Managing fatigue is an issue for many workplaces, but through COVID-19, it’s a problem for many of us who ordinarily wouldn’t be exposed to this risk. We might be working from home and have extended workdays where there is no differentiation between work and home life. Or we may be managing work around family obligations such as home-schooling or caring for others.

What Causes Fatigue?

When managing fatigue, it is essential to understand that fatigue and tiredness are not the same. People who deal with excessive daytime sleepiness are more likely to fall asleep while in a waiting room, sitting in a meeting or their vehicle. People who deal with fatigue don’t generally fall asleep in these situations. However, they do struggle to get through normal daily activities. They may feel weary, weak, lack motivation, have issues with memory and productivity, have no interest in social situations and they can develop depressive thoughts.

Fatigue is a consequence of around-the-clock operations, inconsistent work schedules and rapid or frequent time-zone transitions. These working conditions often adversely affect internal circadian rhythms.

The quantity and quality of sleep are affected by short and variable off-duty periods, lengthy commutes and less-than-optimal sleep environments.  Also, there are substantial individual differences in both sleep requirements and fatigue tolerance that generally place some individuals at higher risk than others.

Boredom and Repetitive Tasks Effect Concentration

Managing fatigue in employees who participate in repetitive tasks is critical to workplace safety. Mental fatigue that degrades cognitive performance can result from participating in long boring tasks such as driving, monitoring equipment and flying highly-automated aircraft. Several research studies show that mental fatigue has a detrimental impact on performance, for example:

Studies conducted using monotonous, boring tasks, show a reduction in cognitive performance occurs in 10minutes or less and increase over time.
Prolonged work shifts (greater than 8hours) lead to reduced alertness and performance.
There is a higher risk of injuries after an increase in the number of hours worked per day and week.
Working overtime is associated with an increase in adverse incidents.
There is a relationship between long work hours and an increased risk of truck accidents, particularly at night.
There is an increased risk of accidents with increased duty time and cumulative duty time.
Long work hours are associated with increased sleepiness, in part because long hours on the job reduce opportunities for adequate off-duty sleep.

Mental Fatigue Can Lead to Depressive Thoughts

A recent study found that mental fatigue weakens our ability to regulate our emotions.  In order to regulate our feelings and remain in a positive space, we need high levels of cognitive resources. When we are fatigued or tired, we don’t manage our emotions very well.  If we continue in a fatigued state without adequate recovery time, we can become emotionally exhausted.

Managing fatigue to ensure regular and sufficient rest time helps to protect against the negative impacts on our emotions, and it’s easier to cope with difficulties and reduce depressive thoughts. Similarly, fatigue affects our ability to resist urges, such as smoking or overeating.  To control these behaviours require mental effort that is impaired when we’re tired or fatigued. It’s critical that employees understand the impact of fatigue on their mental state. 

Managing Fatigue and Increasing Concentration

There are several strategies you can use to help employees managing fatigue to improve their concentration and hazard detection.

Increase the level of supervision after operators have been using heavy machinery for 30 minutes.

Provide regular breaks from repetitive tasks and rotate employees.
Use wearables that detect and alert about lowering levels of concentration (e.g. eye-trackers).

Manage work shifts that take into account the complexity of the surrounding environment.

In Conclusion

COVID-19 has seen an increase of fatigue-related stressors for employees who have never encountered these risks in the past. Employers managing fatigue need to look beyond the typical candidates. Many have seen rosters and over time increase, especially in industries such as transport, warehousing, mining and construction.

Quality and the quantity of sleep are essential in providing sufficient rest to address mental and physical fatigue. When we’re tired or fatigued, we impact our concentration levels and place ourselves at risk of injury. We also affect our emotional state and don’t cope with difficulties well and can develop depressive thoughts. And fatigued workers are less likely to eat well or resist poor health choices, such as smoking.

To address the issues of fatigue, organisations need to provide adequate supervision, allow employees on repetitive tasks to take regular breaks and rotate tasks, think carefully about overtime and extended rosters and enable sufficient rest time. If you are managing fatigue poorly, you’re likely to see an increase in near misses and injuries and an increase in mental illness. For further advice & support contact EAP Assist.