Sleep talk – Managing fatigue in the workplace

Fatigue is a state of extreme tiredness, weariness or exhaustion. For employees, it can create a host of problems such as errors in judgement, a reduced ability to concentrate, sleepiness, low moods, slower reaction times and forgetfulness.

These symptoms make fatigue a serious concern for employers, who will see its effects through lowered productivity, increased absenteeism and less safe working environments; almost one third of UK workers have had a serious accident, made serious mistakes or felt extreme stress at work due to fatigue1 and the condition is said to cost the UK £115 – £240 million per year in terms of work accidents alone2.

All things considered, fatigue is a serious concern and managing it should be high on the health and safety agenda. Despite this, 86% of UK working adults report that they feel unable to speak openly and in confidence with their line manager about how fatigue is affecting their performance1. In a nation where 3.5 million people are shift workers and where a legal duty exists for employers to properly manage the risks it creates, it’s time to build a culture of communication around fatigue, to raise awareness of the serious implications it can have, and to ensure workers and businesses are protected from the danger and disruption it can cause.

Getting to the root cause

The causes of fatigue are many and various. They will inevitably include a range of factors outside of working hours which employers cannot control, such as excessive consumption of caffeine or alcohol affecting sleep patterns. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides guidance on the management of fatigue which can be used as a starting point by businesses seeking to reduce the impact of fatigue and ensure that they are fulfilling their legal obligations3. The first step is often to identify any possible causes of work-related fatigue.

Shift work

One leading cause of fatigue is shift work, especially where overtime or shift swapping isn’t properly regulated. The HSE recommends a planned and systematic approach to shift patterns, to improve the health and safety of workplaces; with any changes to shift patterns being subject to a full risk assessment. Early start times and night work are also factors which can add to the risk of fatigue and these need to be given extra consideration during shift planning. Communication is vital and workers should be consulted on shift work requirements, although it should be noted that workers may choose unhealthy shift patterns which provide more sociable hours and there needs to be a balance here.

Best practice guidelines4 recommend that consecutive work days are limited to a maximum of 5-7, that consecutive long-shifts, night-shifts and early-morning shifts are limited to a maximum of 2-3, that two full nights’ sleep are built in when switching between days and nights and that regular free weekends are provided.

Environment

The work environment can also contribute to fatigue where there is excessive noise or heat, or poor visibility. Measures should be taken to reduce these issues wherever possible, by providing appropriate workwear and protective clothing, or by improving air conditioning systems and lighting.

It’s also vital that workers have the right number of breaks and an opportunity to take refreshment. If work is complex, repetitive or machine-paced, this can add to fatigue. Task rotation can reduce the effects of fatigue, ensure worker safety and increase productivity, and it may also be prudent to move workers to less safety-sensitive tasks towards the end of shifts.

Stress

The impact of stress should also not be underestimated in adding to fatigue levels, lowering motivation and reducing productivity. Employers can guard against excessive stress by ensuring that workers have the correct training to do their jobs, that workloads are manageable, that health and safety guidelines are clear, and that all employees have the right support from their leadership team. Again, a culture of communication is essential here, so that any problems can be quickly identified and resolved.

While it can sometimes be difficult to talk about stress at work, it’s worth noting that the duty placed on employers to reduce stress is recognised in law under the Health and Safety Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, so it shouldn’t be ignored. The HSE has developed Management Standards to help employers manage and reduce key causes of stress. The Standards look at the demands made on employees; the level of control employees have over their work; the support employees receive from managers and colleagues; the clarity of an employee’s role within the organisation; the nature of relationships at work; and the way that change is managed.

Outside factors

Good quality sleep is essential to avoiding fatigue and while workplace factors and work-related stress can be lessened by following best practice and prioritising wellbeing, making sure that workers get a good night’s sleep once they are home can be much more difficult. The average adult needs between 7.5 and 8.5 hours sleep a night to maintain good mental and physical health5.

Employers can help their employees to achieve this by distributing information on the importance of healthy sleep patterns and of regular exercise and healthy diets. Fatigue can be further reduced by ensuring that time between shifts allows for travel, socialising, preparing meals and resting. Best practice also recommends encouraging shift workers to advise GPs of their working patterns and providing free health checks for night workers.

Safer, healthier workplaces

Fatigue is a problem in any workplace and in some settings, such as factories, railways or construction sites, creates the risk of serious harm. Unfortunately, fatigue is often seen as a symptom of a busy lifestyle rather than a real issue and many employees continue to arrive at work feeling too tired to do their jobs properly. Changing the culture around fatigue is important if our workplaces are to be safer and healthier, and employers should take the time to understand the impact of fatigue in their workplaces and to put better practices in place for addressing this.

While a common-sense approach is good, it’s not enough to simply apply this on an ad hoc basis; clear policies and ongoing monitoring will ensure that fatigue doesn’t put employees at risk and that businesses can improve productivity, retain staff and avoid costly accidents. As with any health and safety hazard, fatigue should be carefully managed through risk assessment and risk management, simply complying with the Working Times Regulations is not enough.

Further guidance and a ‘fatigue risk index’ can be found here.

  1. Report by Westfield Health September 2018
  2. Figures from Health and Safety Executive
  3. Human Factors – Fatigue
  4. Good practice – Guide
  5. Safety Alliance article
Blog Health and Safety, Mental Health
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