What is fatigue?
Fatigue is an often misused and overused term for “tired”. But fatigue and passing or short-term tiredness, laziness or even drowsiness are different.
In the context of work fatigue, which is what we are focusing on in talking about fatigue management strategies, fatigue is:
Mental and/or physical exhaustion which reduces a persons ability to perform work safely and effectively. In a nutshell, fatigue stops a person from functioning and performing normally.
Fatigue is like driving tired; it’s an extreme and very real danger which results in major incidents and accidents, but it is often swept under the rug or ignored because its impacts aren’t obviously dangerous or highly visible.
Fatigue is a very important safety subject, and it is one which needs to be proactively managed and monitored by employees and companies alike – especially in industries and roles prone to fatigue including all types of shift work and physically laborious jobs in construction, cleaning and other roles.
Fatigue management strategies are one of the first lines of defense for companies in these industries, and all companies should be aware of them too. Most of these strategies serve to reduce the likelihood of fatigue in the first place through proactive management – which is the best form of fatigue management.
Because fatigue isn’t typically short-term or temporary, once it hits it can be lasting and even chronic. So stopping fatigue before it hits is critical to good fatigue management – and the goal of fatigue management strategies.
What is fatigue management?
Fatigue management is the name given to the conscious efforts associated with managing fatigue. As we touched on before, fatigue management can involve proactive actions and activities which seek to prevent fatigue from occurring, as well as reactive procedures which seek to reduce the impact of fatigue once it has been identified.
Fatigue management isn’t just the responsibility of a company or organization. Workers play a huge role in fatigue management, by living a healthy and functional life outside or work which enables them to come to work alert and ready to perform at the expected level.
Fatigue management is an ongoing endeavor, with an ever-evolving work constantly introducing new spanners which can increase fatigue, including mobile phones and Netflix.
Causes and consequences of poor fatigue management strategies
There are plenty of possible causes of fatigue, which makes fatigue management strategies more complicated and potentially less effective.
Some causes of fatigue are impossible for companies to prevent completely, as some originate and are maintained at home in workers’ personal lives.
Some of the most common causes of fatigue for all kinds of workers include:
• Long shifts and changing shifts (e.g. moving between day and night shifts)
• Work scheduling and not enough time to recover between shifts or periods of sustained work
• Long commute times and excessive travel (travelling by plane can be especially fatiguing)
• Strenuous jobs which require intense or extended periods of physical or mental exertion
• Abnormally hot or cold environments
As you can see, some of these fatigue causes occur suddenly while other accumulate and stew over time. It’s important that both forms are managed through your fatigue management strategies.
The consequences of fatigue are multi-faceted too – but they share the common theme of creating more unsafe and less productive workers through:
• A lack of alertness
• Slow reactions
• Poor decision making
• Poor communication
• More injuries and incidents
And some consequences of fatigue are more indirect including:
• Workers being sick more often
• Workers being less productive
As you can probably gather from the fact that companies work extremely hard on their fatigue management strategies, the consequences of fatigue aren’t confined to the individual who is fatigued. One persons fatigue can quickly impact those around them when operating large machinery, driving a vehicle or working with flammable or dangerous substances and performing other high risk activities.
Other personal fatigue in professions like medicine can result in direct impacts to patients through error and other fatigue induced mishaps.
A single bout of fatigue can have a big and lasting impact on entire projects and entire companies or organizations.
The best fatigue management strategies
There are many different kinds of fatigue management strategies, but we will be looking at some of the more holistic and broadly applicable strategies you can think about, discuss and hopefully implement.
None of these fatigue management strategies are silver bullets, and a combination of all of them is likely to be the best overall strategy for dealing with fatigue in the workplace.
Like many different things and many aspects of workplace safety, one of the first lines of defense and easiest to implement strategies for fatigue management is education.
There are a few key aspects to fatigue education:
• Educating people on the importance of avoiding fatigue through good life habits. Many people underestimate the impact of sleep and diet on their fatigue levels.
• Educating people about how to flag, surface or notify the right people when they feel fatigued.
Even just discussing fatigue through a toolbox talk or other informal meeting can have a big impact as it makes people more aware of the issues, and more likely to tell someone about it.
The most lasting and concrete fatigue management strategy for any organization is implementing actual policies around fatigue.
These are not usually obvious fatigue management strategies, but focus on providing workers with enough rest to avoid fatigue. Policies along these lines include:
• Mandatory rest breaks
• A napping policy
• Sleep disorder screening
• Alertness testing
Shift design and rostering
Shift design and good rostering is a massively impactful fatigue management strategy for companies who manage workers engaging in shift work and non-normal schedules.
There is no perfect shift design or rostering, with every worker reacting a little differently to a certain schedule and many nuances creating variation in impact. When assessing how well your shift designs and rosters account for fatigue, you really need to think about the life of a person engaged in that schedule, as well as the risk associated with implementing that type of structure. From there, you may create different fatigue management strategies which align more closely to your chosen shift design and rostering.
Some good rules of thumb are:
• Provide workers with choice and flexibility
• Avoid extremely early morning starts where possible (where it’s still dark etc. throwing out the normal bodily rhythm)
• Restrict the number of successive night shifts
• Build regularly free blocks or weekends for workers where possible
Work environment changes
The work environment you establish can be your strongest weapon for combating fatigue and your most potent fatigue management strategy.
The work environment is constantly there, so when designed properly you can dramatically reduce the likelihood that fatigue stems from your place of work.
Some work environmental changes which can impact fatigue greatly include:
• Rotating tasks to avoid monotony and keep things fresh
• Providing shade or heating to make people more comfortable in ‘extreme’ hot or cold
• Enabling more flexibility in when people work so they can self-adjust based on their own fatigue indicators.
The easiest of the fatigue management strategies to implement is probably adequate staffing, but it’s often not done because it is expensive, and because employers often feel as though they can get a little more out of each employee.
What constitutes adequate staffing will vary from company to company (and even manager to manager), but this is something which should be discussed with workers and managers, so that employees can provide their opinions on current staffing levels and how much work or overtime they are having to do. Often times it’s not sustainable without inducing fatigue pretty quickly.
In-line with the last point made in the above fatigue management strategy, worker consultations are a really important part of good organizational fatigue management.
Fatigue management shouldn’t be pushed from the top down with no input from actual front line or shift workers. Getting the input of employees doing the work, as well as health and safety reps and supervisors is crucial to finding the best and healthiest middle ground for all parties.
Observation and monitoring
And finally, one of the best and often ignored fatigue management strategies is to simply observe, monitor and record workers and the workplace.