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Employee Fatigue: Causes, Effects & Strategies for Prevention

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How rested and energized are your employees when they come in for a shift? If your workers aren’t getting enough rest, they’re putting themselves and other workers at risk. Unfortunately, many of today’s workers simply aren’t getting enough sleep, which leads to employee fatigue. One national survey has found that more than 33% of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night, and about 10% of Americans report getting less than six hours of sleep. This is problematic for a number of reasons; worker fatigue can put employees at greater danger of hurting themselves or others in the workplace—and it can certainly cost your organization precious time and money.

Businesses of all sizes and across all industries have a responsibility to understand employee fatigue and the steps safety leaders can take to prevent it.

How Much is Fatigue Costing Your Company?

You may not realize it, but employee fatigue can cost your organization a great deal of money. Specifically, it is estimated that a “typical” employer with about 1,000 employees will lose more than $1 million annually as a direct result of employee fatigue! Of that $1 million, about $272,000 of that will be due to absenteeism (workers calling off or being forced to take time off after a workplace incident related to fatigue) and another $776,000 is due to presenteeism, or workers showing up fatigued and costing the business money in lost productivity. It is also estimated that the same sized business could avoid more than $500,000 of annual health care costs if employees were better rested before coming into work.

Common Causes of Employee Fatigue

There are many potential causes of fatigue in the workplace and it is only by understanding these causes that employers can begin working towards preventing them.

Time of Day

Because of the body’s natural circadian rhythms, workers who have non-traditional work hours (such as working “the night shift” or working a schedule with rotating shifts) are more likely to experience fatigue. This is due to a lack of sleep and sleep quality.

Sleep Deprivation

Ideally, the average person should be getting an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, very few American adults actually get this much sleep. When a worker doesn’t get enough sleep, a “sleep debt” occurs that and can build up over time. This is common among those with certain sleeping disorders, such as insomnia.

Time on Task

Sometimes, on-the-job factors, such as the amount of time an employee is required to spend on a specific task, can contribute to worker fatigue as well. This is because a human being’s natural ability to stay focused on any given task is limited; this applies to just about any line of work. The more time a worker spends on a particular task, the more effort will be required of their mind and body to focus. Eventually, fatigue can and likely will occur.

Personal Factors

Certain things going on within a worker’s personal life can also cause a lack of sleep that contributes to worker fatigue. Aside from suffering from sleep disorders, workers with other medical conditions that can affect sleep quality may experience fatigue as a result. Some examples of these medical issues may include allergies, asthma, and arthritis. And of course, non-medical personal factors such as household stress, poor diet and nutrition, and substance use can contribute to a lack of sleep as well.

Work Factors

By their very nature, jobs in certain industries are inherently more prone to cause fatigue among workers. Likewise, jobs with poor indoor air quality, problems with noise control, and poor employee engagement can also contribute to instances of worker fatigue.

When employees suffer from worker fatigue, regardless of the cause, there are many potential ill effects that can occur. Some of these include:

  • Loss of cognitive performance
  • Increased risk of accident and injury
  • Greater instance of other health problems, such as heart disease and obesity

And of course, there is the potential economic cost of worker fatigue to organizations, with the average employer losing between $1,200 and $3,000 annually per employee as a direct result of productivity issues stemming from fatigue in the workplace.

How Employers Can Help

While completely eliminating all sources of employee fatigue in the workplace may be nothing more than a pipe dream, organizations should provide their workers with the support and resources needed to reduce fatigue as much as possible. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that employers can take to facilitate this.

For starters, in jobs where employees are experiencing fatigue caused by long shift hours, employers should always make sure that limits are in-place when it comes to overtime. Furthermore, those who are picking up overtime shifts should be monitored to make sure they are receiving plenty of rest and breaks in between their shifts whenever possible. Many organizations also choose to implement strict policies on working second jobs to ensure that workers are prioritizing their sleep and focus.

For situations where workers are accumulating sleep debt, employers may want to consider reviewing their shift schedules to ensure that no employees are working more than four consecutive night shifts, and that there is at least 12 hours in between consecutive shifts for these workers. In some cases, it is also wise to permit short 15-20 minute naps for workers during longer or unconventional shifts for an added energy boost. For shifts that cannot be avoided during non-traditional times, organizations should avoid requiring workers to complete safety-critical tasks between the hours of 3AM and 5AM to reduce risk of accident or injury.

Employers should also take time to re-visit their policies and organizations structures to ensure that workers have an outlet for expressing concerns related to work hours, shifts, and other factors related to worker fatigue. Workers should feel that their concerns are taken seriously and have confidence in the management teams handling these kinds of concerns.

How Employees Can Help Themselves

Organizations should also encourage workers to help themselves in avoiding on-the-job fatigue. Night shift workers, for example, should be reminded to fuel their bodies for work appropriately with healthy meals and snacks, and to avoid earing large meals immediately before bedtime for better sleep quality. Some other actions all workers can take to increase sleep quality and avoid fatigue include:

  • Installing heavy, light-blocking curtains in the bedroom
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Finding a sleep routine that “works” and sticking to it
  • Planning social activities with shift work in mind
  • Seeking medical treatment for conditions affecting sleep quality

The Bottom Line

Among many organizations, worker fatigue is a serious problem that goes overlooked and, often, undetected. By having a greater presence of mind of the common factors that contribute to worker fatigue and by taking measures to protect against them, both employees and employers can benefit greatly. Specifically, employers can cut down on accidents/injuries as well as costs related to fatigue in the workplace—and employees can surely benefit from improved sleep quality and better overall job performance.

For more information and guidance on facilitating a safer workplace and cutting down on employee fatigue, reach out to our team at IMPROV® Learning today and ask about our course on Fatigue in the Workplace.