Workplace Fatigue

Fatigue in the workplace is a serious and growing problem for both employers and employees.  As we discussed in part 1, fatigue is caused by many factors. For example, feelings of tiredness or exhaustion, weakness, lack of energy, or reduced muscle strength and coordination. Fatigue can affect both physical and cognitive performance which can lead to emotional changes such as depression and irritability.  Any one of these can negatively impact worker safety and performance.  In part 2 of this series, we learned about the potential health consequences for fatigued individuals. This fatigue also contributes to workplace accidents and injuries. In addition, there are increases in employee dissatisfaction and turnover as well as in absenteeism. All of which contributes to reduced productivity. As you would expect, these employees also have difficulty interacting with their supervisors and co-workers.

Sleep Deprivation

Numerous studies have shown that the most significant factor in fatigue at work is a lack of sleep.  Job-related influences including long work hours, insufficient rest periods (i.e. “breaks”), and shift work can all contribute to sleep problems. Non-job-related influences can also contribute to sleep issues. Examples include family disturbances, stress, overuse of stimulants (i.e. coffee, Red Bull), sleep apnea and other medical problems.

Studies have shown that fatigue is one of the chief reasons people seek medical attention. One survey found that more than a third of adults regularly slept less than seven hours per night. An estimated 25% of adults report feeling fatigued.

Too Tired to Function

Fatigue is becoming more common and has a large effect on mental and physical function. As a result, high economic and social costs are inevitable.  Certain critical professions and trades are particularly susceptible to fatigue on the job. Ironically, it is these high-risk jobs where the consequences of impaired attention and performance can have a proportionately greater impact. Thus, workplace safety is an essential consideration. Let’s take a look at a few instances where fatigue led to an increase in work place errors.

The transportation industry

A consensus statement by the European Sleep Research Society examining accidents in the trucking industry concludes that:

“Fatigue (sleepiness, tiredness) is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of accidents in transport operations…” with “between 15% and 20% of all accidents” caused by fatigue.

Fatigue has also played a role in some famous workplace disasters. 

The healthcare industry

Healthcare is another field where fatigue leads to a reduction in performance and increased error rates. In one study, the number of serious medical errors was analyzed by comparing the work schedules of medical interns. One set of interns worked a more traditional schedule that incurred a serious sleep deficit. The other set worked a schedule designed to reduce that deficit. Interns on the traditional schedule made 22% more serious medical errors in critical care units than those in the comparison group. Overall, the number of medical errors committed by fatigued interns was closer to 40 percent.

Occupational Sleep Medicine

Workplace health and safety problems caused by sleep deficit and fatigue are becoming more frequent. As a result, there is now a new field in Occupational Medicine called Occupational Sleep Medicine (OSM).  Traditional Occupational Medicine deals with the medical aspects of health and safety in the workplace. It focuses on prevention and treatment of injuries and social conflicts. Sleep Medicine focuses on the identification and treatment of sleep disorders.  OSM combines these two fields and takes a closer look at causes and preventative strategies to help workers resolve their sleep issues.