The Problem of Worker Fatigue

Fatigue not only affects a worker’s health and productivity, it also plays a significant role in workplace safety. Causes of worker fatigue are many and varied and may be either work related or due to poor personal habits or overloaded lives outside of work. Often, it’s a combination of work and personal factors. Consider the following statistics:

  • The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that people in the United States get 20% less sleep than a century ago, mainly due to self-imposed sleep deprivation.
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2010 that 30% of U.S. workers reported sleeping less than six hours a night. (The NSF recommends seven to nine hours for adults.)
  • The Statistic Brain Research Institute reports that 48% of people indicate they often lie awake at night due to stress.

Regardless of the reasons, worker fatigue exists as a significant workplace safety hazard since it impacts the ability to think and act productively. At a minimum, fatigued individuals are usually less alert and unable to adequately complete simple workday tasks. At the extreme, worker fatigue can lead to accidents and injuries.

  • A 2012 NSF survey reports that 20% of pilots and train operators and 15% of truck drivers said lack of sleep directly caused at least one serious incident or near miss in their careers.
  • Industry experts estimate that fatigue in the workplace costs at least $77 billion annually.
  • NSF reports that not only does fatigue cause workplace injuries, it also causes about 25% of all highway accidents.

Clearly, worker fatigue is a significant safety hazard both in the workplace and outside of it. And not only is it a detriment to safety, worker fatigue also extends well into individual lives. The impact of fatigue on the average individual, though we must note that fatigue impacts every person uniquely, includes increases in musculoskeletal pain, hypertension, obesity and diabetes. Over time, lack of adequate sleep increases an individual’s chance of developing significant health issues simply because their bodies do not get the sleep needed to recharge and realign regularly.

Strategies for Reducing Worker Fatigue

Solving worker fatigue is not simple since every individual is impacted differently and since many individuals don’t even know when they are overly-tired. Fortunately, there are some basic strategies employers can use to help reduce worker fatigue and its negative impact on the workplace.

  1. Educate about sleep and fatigue. Employers can educate workers about good sleep habits and about the benefits of adequate sleep. Education about the impact of fatigue and how to identify it is also helpful as is making sure workers know the physical, mental, performance, emotional and behavioral signs of fatigue.
  2. Reduce risks associated with worker fatigue. This involves making sure lighting in work areas is sufficient, that noise levels are appropriate (louder noise levels increases fatigue), and that temperature levels are comfortable (i.e. not too warm). In addition, encouraging employees to vary tasks and to take adequate breaks can also help prevent fatigue.
  3. Provide anti-fatigue work areas. Making sure workers who stand have anti-fatigue mats and that workers who sit have proper ergonomics are just two examples of how to make sure a workspace doesn’t add to worker fatigue. Check with employees for additional suggestions on how to make sure their workspace doesn’t contribute to their fatigue.
  4. Pay special attention to unusual or extended work shifts. Since most workers struggle fully adapting to unusual shift work, be sure to provide additional breaks and meals to allow workers more rest. In addition, if at all possible, avoid extended working hours for more than a few days.
  5. Help workers manage their fatigue. Unfortunately, no matter how much you educate on worker fatigue or how many anti-fatigue approaches are used, fatigue finds its way into the workplace. Ways to help workers manage fatigue include making healthy snacks available and encouraging hydration and frequent breaks. Some experts even recommend establishing napping facilities since a quick 10-15 minute nap has been proven to improve employee morale and efficiency.

Employers who choose to prevent and manage worker fatigue discover many benefits for their efforts, including higher productivity, less worker absenteeism, fewer accidents, and better care taken of the workplace itself. In addition, worker satisfaction goes up, which only increases these positive benefits. Employing strategies such as those listed above for reducing worker fatigue not only provides a safer work environment, but it also increases a company’s profitability. Any way you look at it, reducing worker fatigue is a win-win scenario.