Workplace Fatigue impacts the mental and physical state of employees, so identifying, preventing and managing it will lead to a happier, more productive workplace.
For all kinds of reasons, we all feel fatigued at times in both our personal and professional lives. General fatigue is often written off as a product of a busy life and lack of sleep, pushed through by reaching for another cup of coffee or the lure of the weekend and a well-deserved sleep-in being not too far away.
However, workplace fatigue, especially in highly pressurised industries, can’t be batted away so easily, and should be identified, managed and prevented to ensure an employee is able to perform their work safely and effectively. Preventing workplace fatigue is also an obligation via state and federal workplace laws that employers must comply with.
So, why not get ahead of the game and beat fatigue at the source, rather than allow it to creep in?
Identifying workplace fatigue
Workplace fatigue isn’t just ‘feeling tired’, lethargic or overworked. Outside of the obvious tiredness evidenced via excessive yawning, lethargy and even falling asleep on the job, Safework NSW points to common symptoms, such as:
Headaches and dizziness
Inability to concentrate
Repeated mistakes at work.
Workplace fatigue can also present as impaired decision making and, in extreme cases, changes in personal and professional behaviour that impact performance, such as lateness or absenteeism.
Common causes of workplace fatigue
The cause of workplace fatigue can originate both in and out of work, and can include:
Irregular working hours;
Physically, mentally or emotionally demanding tasks;
Personal and emotional well-being;
On-going pressure or criticism;
Environmental conditions, such as extreme heat, cold, noise, disruption etc, that make it hard to concentrate or work safely;
Long commute times; and
Other lifestyle factors.
Healthcare workers in particular will relate to many of the factors in the list above, even more so over the last few years when we’ve seen many instances in the press and on social media of nurses, doctors and hospital staff talking about suffering intense workplace fatigue to the point of walking away from the profession.
Given the costs that come with poor retention and high staff turnover, any employer, in the healthcare sector or otherwise, wants to retain staff when possible, and one way to do this is to prevent and manage workplace fatigue.
Preventing workplace fatigue
It may be a cliché of sorts, but prevention can be better than a cure, so putting in place measures to reduce or prevent fatigue should be front-of-mind for employers, both to ensure employee well-being and to remain compliant.
The most obvious way to prevent fatigue is to build a workplace culture where employees feel the lines of communication are open to discuss any issues around fatigue. Whether this be through HR or direct lines of report, it’s crucial to foster an environment of openness about workplace fatigue and create mechanisms to both identify and prevent it.
Being aware of the factors that cause or contribute to fatigue, as listed above, is important, but as an employer, also ask some honest questions about the workplace:
Are work schedules manageable and conducive to prevent fatigue?
Do employees take breaks, organise leave at appropriate intervals and undertake overtime within reason?
If due to its very nature the work environment causes fatigue, are measures being taken to address this and reduce the factors that are adding to fatigue?
Is reasonable consideration of an employee’s personal life, such as commute time, family pressures, outside commitments etc being taken into account around workload?
Are workplace incidents being regularly reviewed to ensure they are not fatigue-related and to avoid repeats?
Is the business resourced enough staff-wise to ensure no one is doing more than is reasonable to ask of them in their role?
By asking these questions, and then analysing the data, measures can be put in place and action taken to, at the very least, minimise workplace fatigue, if not prevent it altogether.
Managing workplace fatigue
Even when time and energy is put into preventing workplace fatigue, it’s a simple fact of business that sometimes it can’t be prevented, which means it needs to be managed. This is where both the employee and the employer can take agency around this.
Employees can undertake practical measures, such as:
Prioritising sleep and relaxation out of work by paring back some non-workplace obligations or activities (easier said than done for parents with young children);
Looking to diet and exercise to ensure these are optimised to prevent fatigue;
Being open with friends and family about the stress/pressure of work and relying on their support to a degree to help manage fatigue;
Buddying up with colleagues to keep a watch on each other around identifying workplace fatigue; and
Building strong relationships with management and reporting fatigue when it hits
It also falls on employers to manage fatigue when it becomes clear it is impacting employees. Besides the obvious setting up of work schedules that allow time for ample sleep and rest, other actions employers can take include:
Providing clarity around workplace requirements (eg overtime, particularly busy parts of the business day or monthly/yearly cycle etc) so employees can plan this into their wider lives;
Offering wellbeing activities and education or training around managing workplace fatigue;
Creating flexible working arrangements to offset some of the factors that lead to fatigue;
Carefully monitoring staff for signs of fatigue; and
Ensuring mechanisms are in place for staff to report fatigue – either their own or of a colleague – in a confidential way.
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