Fighting fatigue

14 Nov 2019

Fatigue is a potential workplace hazard because it can seriously impact worker safety and lead to increases in accidents. While it is difficult to objectively measure and quantify, the symptoms of fatigue typically fall under three categories:

Physical: sleepiness, yawning, loss of appetite, heavy eyelids, micro-sleeps and even accidental and unnoticed periods of sleep that can last anywhere from 1 to 30 seconds.

Mental: difficulty in focusing, slowed reaction times, forgetfulness, poor recall, impaired logic and uncharacteristic risk taking.

Emotional: feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability and moodiness.

Who is at risk?

Those most likely at risk of fatigue are workers whose natural circadian rhythm is disrupted, such as shift and night workers and those working extended hours. The hours that put workers at the most risk is between midnight and 6am, with the most critical time being 3am – 5am and 1 – 3pm. Workplace accidents are most likely to occur during shift changes and when breaks have not been taken in several hours.

Environmental factors

There are environmental factors that can exacerbate the risk of fatigue, such as

  • Dim lighting
  • Warm temperatures
  • Background noise
  • Repetitive or mundane tasks
  • Tasks that require extreme and prolonged periods of concentration
  • Comfortable environments

Statistics show that 43% of workers say they work when they are overtired from time to time, or a lot of the time. This poses is a significant degree of risk to New Zealand industry workers.

Managing fatigue

There are a number of steps that can be taken to manage fatigue, both at home and at the workplace.

At home

  • Get enough high-quality sleep: The average person needs 7-9 hours each night, or within a 24-hour period. The best quality sleep is obtained in a single block and ideally as much as possible before midnight. Ensure the room is cool and as dark as possible, reduce or eliminate noise by turning off phones or wearing earplugs, and where possible keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to sleep and waking around the same time every day.
  • Avoid stimulants: Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine all impact your ability to get a high-quality sleep. Alcohol and caffeine are also both diuretics, which means they flush water from your system, increasing the chance of wakefulness with needing to use the toilet as well as dehydration.
  • Diet and exercise: Proper nutrition and exercise go a long way in combating fatigue and stress. A good, healthy diet and exercise will provide you with the energy you need to get through the day.

At the workplace

  • Relax and take breaks: Pockets of relaxation is vital for all people. While on the job, ensure you take all your breaks and use the time to relax and unwind, as well as drink plenty of water and eat proper nutrition.
  • Take a nap: If required, take a 15-20 minute power nap, but not longer as this can make you more tired. Set an alarm or ask a colleague to wake you after 20 minutes.
  • Tell someone: There is no shame in letting a manager or supervisor know you are tired. They may be able to shuffle the schedule around to enable you to take a break.
  • Manage your time: You will know your personal limits. Ensure you think ahead about what is coming up in your schedule (both personal and at work) and consider how working overtime may affect your energy levels.
  • Notice your colleagues’ levels of tiredness: If you notice a co-worker is tired or showing signs of fatigue, speak to them or a supervisor.

If you or a colleague are fatigued at work, and particularly in a role where there is machinery or high levels of risk, it is important that the signs are recognised and acted upon. When we manage our energy and levels of tiredness both at home and at work, the risk of fatigue-related incidents are significantly reduced.