Managing Workplace Fatigue

7/31/2013 by Gwen Kesten, Ph.D.

There is a well documented link between workplace safety and fatigue. Certain industries are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of workplace fatigue including transportation services, and various industries requiring shiftwork such as healthcare. In many of those work situations, adverse events that occur as a result of fatigue carry high stakes related to people’s health and safety.

Workplace fatigue is primarily caused by inadequate quality and/or quantity of sleep. When this occurs over an extended timeframe, employees are likely to be negatively affected. In 2001, the National Sleep Foundation conducted a study about sleep habits in Americans. They surveyed a large group of adults who claimed to have suffered fatigue to the point where it interfered with daily functions. They found that women reported this problem more than men, and that this degree of fatigue was most often reported in adults who suffered from depression, who did shiftwork, or who served as primary caretakers for children or others unable to care for themselves. The medical sleep literature suggests that most adults need between 7 and 9 hours per day. In the United States, adults only average between 6 and 7 hours of sleep per day. Further, adults are often poor judges of their own level of fatigue, typically believing that their functions are less compromised than they, in fact, are.

The human body functions in a natural rhythm that repeats about every 24 hours. This “Circadian Rhythm” regulates sleep patterns, alertness, body temperature, digestion, hormone levels and various other functions. Individuals function best when they follow the body’s biologically natural pattern of sleep. At naturally lowest points of alertness in this cycle (typically between 3 and 5 am and 3 and 5 pm) the likelihood of a period of fatigue  increases. With serious sleep deprivation the body sometimes even engages in very brief periods of sleep called “micro sleep” for  seconds at a given time. These short periods of non-rejuvenating sleep are described by researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison as nerve cells in a “sleep-deprived yet awake brain”, briefly going “off line” into a sleep-like state, while the rest of the brain appears awake. During these episodes cognitive functions and performance are suspended.  

Fatigue can be caused by many things. The most obvious is an inadequate number of hours of sleep – inadequate quantity. In addition, poor quality of sleep leads to fatigue. Factors that can lead to poor quality of sleep include interrupted sleep; sleep disorders such as apnea, pregnancy, and certain medical conditions. Fatigue can also result from involvement in prolonged physically or mentally draining tasks, long commutes, and from sedating medications. Caffeine and alcohol use diminish quality of sleep. Environmental conditions such as continuous noise, humidity, temperature and lighting can lead to poor sleep quality resulting in fatigue. Finally, shiftwork can have a deleterious effect on sleep. Studies show that night workers get 5-7 hours less sleep per week than those who work days. Those who work rotating shifts also challenge their body’s ideal sleep cycle.

 Workplace fatigue can be uncomfortable, and it can have serious negative consequences. Productivity is generally poor under conditions of fatigue. Individuals typically have diminished cognitive and physical capabilities when fatigued. Irritability is common. Motivation is diminished. Communication becomes compromised. Empathy suffers. Human errors and accidents increase with fatigue as do ongoing health problems.

 Given the frequency and serious consequences of workplace fatigue, it’s fortunate that strategies to combat fatigue include some that can be fairly readily employed. It is important to try to set aside a regular time each day for 7-9 hours of sleep. Sleep cannot be “banked.” Sleeping for long periods following several days of insufficient sleep is not effective in maintaining a stable rest cycle. Sleep is most restorative when in a cool, dark, quiet, comfortable sleep space that is the same each day. Exercise on a daily basis helps with stress management and general health and promotes good sleep as long as it occurs several hours before bedtime. Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before sleep and reduce caffeine for hours prior to sleep. Once in the work environment, strategies that can help stave off more intense fatigue include changing tasks such that no repetitive tasks lasts too long, changing posture and position regularly, and taking work breaks. Move around during breaks and move to a different space. Eating or drinking can provide a sense of revival as can washing with cool water. If despite strategies to combat it, fatigue remains, it may be prudent to develop a system of double checks on tasks with high associated risk factors. Coworkers can help each other by taking note of signs of fatigue in themselves and coworkers and facilitating restorative and protective strategies.


Gwen Kesten is a clinical psychologist who joined Solutions EAP in 2002 through a joint venture with Middlesex Hospital.  She has over twenty years of post-Master's clinical experience working with children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Kesten conducts workshops for businesses and healthcare organizations on Burnout, Stress Management, and topics related to clinical syndromes such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and sexuality.




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