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What Employers Should Know About Fatigue

Blog written by Kylie Marler

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Fatigue is one of the biggest obstacles to workplace performance, yet it often gets overlooked or ignored. Fatigue can affect anyone, whether you’re a receptionist, a truck driver, a police officer, or an accountant – fatigue can get you. And for many people, it’s the elephant in the office. So today we’re telling employers what they should know about fatigue.


Fatigue Statistics

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit public service organization founded in 1913 that promotes health and safety in the U.S., has this page about fatigue among their “Workplace Safety” topics. The NSC’s page says, “more than 43% of workers are sleep-deprived,” as well as stating that safety performance decreases as employees become tired.

The NSC’s page goes on, saying, “62% of night shift workers complain about sleep loss.” The page also touches on the dangers of drowsy driving, as most workers either drive to work or drive as part of their job. The page says, “NSC has gathered research that shows:

    • You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued
    • Losing even two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of having three beers
    • Being awake for more than 20 hours is the equivalent of being legally drunk”


How Fatigue Affects Workers

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website contains this excerpt from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The excerpt talks about the relationship between work and fatigue. It states, “Fatigue can also be associated with other workplace factors such as stress, physically or mentally demanding tasks, or working in hot environments.”

The excerpt continues, adding that while fatigue can stem from a variety of factors, its effects go beyond just sleepiness. The excerpt writes, “Fatigue can slow down reaction times, reduce attention or concentration, limit short-term memory and impair judgement.” Lastly, the excerpt says, “High levels of fatigue can affect any worker in any occupation or industry with serious consequences for worker safety and health.”


Fatigue Affects Work Performance

This article about fatigue management in the workplace was written by Khosro Sadeghniiat-Haghighi and Zohreh Yazdi and published in Industrial Psychiatry Journal. The article lists the most important effects fatigue has on employees in the workplace, “decreased task motivation, longer reaction time, reduction of alertness, impaired concentration, poorer psychometric coordination, problems in memory and information processing, and poor judgement.”

The article also says that fatigued people have poor communication with their surrounding environments and are quicker to become angry towards other people. The article adds, “Therefore, a fatigued worker is potentially dangerous to themselves and others, and the highest rate of catastrophic incidents is usually found among fatigued shift workers.”


Signs of a Fatigued Employee

The Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group (OMAG), an organization that provides insurance and risk management solutions to over 500 cities/municipalities in Oklahoma, published this informational post about fatigue in the workplace. The post discusses the common signs and symptoms that fatigued workers exhibit. The post says, “Fatigued workers can put themselves and others at risk of injury. It is important for managers and supervisors to know the signs of fatigue and watch out for these symptoms in their employees.”

The post then lists the seven most common signs/symptoms of fatigued workers, starting with number one: tired, weariness, or sleepiness. The post says the “most obvious indicators” are drooping heads, incessant yawning, and eyelids that seem to be closing.

Next, the post lists number two: irritability. The post states that while workers may be irritable for many personal reasons (such as problems at home and financial stress), lack of rest is just as likely to be a reason a worker is fatigued, especially when “combined with other signs on the list above.”

Continuing down the list, the post comes to number three: reduced alertness, concentration, or memory. OMAG‘s post says to “watch for workers who appear to have trouble focusing or who can’t recall seemingly simple things.”

The post then moves into number four: lack of motivation. The post writes, “Employees who appear to suddenly lack motivation to do their job, and do it well, may seem lazy but this is generally a sign of broader issues, including fatigue.”

Next is number five: increased mistakes or lapses in judgement. The post says to pay attention to workers who are usually competent and good at their job but start making “frequent errors or poor choices” – this could be a sign of sleep deprivation or fatigue.

Following that is number six: headaches. The post says that while headaches are a common sign of fatigue, they are also a common sign of dehydration. The post advises that before deciding whether it is fatigue, “make make sure all workers are adequately hydrated on the job”.

Last is number seven: increased susceptibility to illness. The post states, “workers who are suddenly taking time off due to illness may be experiencing fatigue.” The post adds that insufficient sleep wears down your body and affects your ability to fight colds, flus, and other illnesses.


Costs of Fatigued Workers

The NSC’s page also mentions the impact that fatigued workers have on employers. The page says, “Fatigued worker productivity costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually,” and, “Fatigue is estimated to cost employers $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity.”

The NSC also has this page about the cost fatigued employees have on companies. The page says that a recent national survey conducted by NSC found these impacts to productivity in the workplace:

    • “Workers who sleep fewer than six hours per night cost employers about six workdays a year in productivity
    • Employees who sleep six to seven hours each night cost employers 3.7 workdays a year in productivity”

The page continues, saying that employees who work night or rotating shifts report “more than twice the rate of missed workdays, resulting in increased absenteeism costs.” The page also talks about the dangers of long work hours and how they have been linked to increased risk of injury.

The page also mentions that companies/businesses with fatigued employees typically see an impact on absenteeism, presenteeism (being present at work but not fully functioning), healthcare costs, injuries, and costly accidents.

Lastly, the page discusses the total costs that fatigued workers can have on employers. The page states, “A typical employer with 1,000 employees can expect to experience more than $1 million lost each year to fatigue: $272,000 due to absenteeism and $776,000 due to presenteeism. An additional $536,000 in healthcare costs could be avoided with optimization of sleep health.”

If you want to know how much fatigue is costing your company or business, you can check out the NSC’s Real Cost of Fatigue Calculator here.


Help Your Fatigued Employees

Luckily, there are many steps employers can take to help their fatigued workers. OMAG’s informational post suggests a few ways for employers to be proactive about worker fatigue, including: shift scheduling (consistent schedules, frequent breaks, two consecutive days off per week, and no more than four night shifts in a row), balancing workloads and staffing, developing a reporting system for fatigue-related incidents, workplace design (cool atmosphere, low humidity, natural light, minimal noise/vibrations), employee training on fatigue and managing sleep disorders, supervisor and management training on monitoring and identifying fatigue in workers, and even offering an insurance plan that covers sleep disorders so employees and workers can get the information and help they need to manage their fatigue.

The National Safety Council also has this page about how employers can reduce worker fatigue. The page gives several suggestions. First, the NSC recommends optimizing schedules. This includes avoiding assigning permanent night-shift schedules if possible, avoid long shift lengths, and assign regular, predictable schedules. The page also says to provide adequate time to recover between shifts, give employees a voice in their schedules, rotate shifts forward when rotating shifts, and provide frequent breaks within shifts.

Next, the NSC’s page suggests “allow napping where feasible” – the page says that while sleeping on the job is typically frowned upon, encouraging your employees to take a short nap (when safe and feasible) could “give them the energy and focus they need to be safe and productive at work.”

The page then recommends educating employees about the importance of sleep. It suggests promoting in-person and online programs focused on sleep, offering sleep disorder screening programs, and making sleep a part of corporate wellness programs.

Finally, the NSC’s page suggests adopting a “sleep health culture” – discourage employees from sacrificing sleep for work-related activities, provide accommodations if early or late hours are required, provide transportation or nap facilities to help employees stay alert while driving to or from work, and adopt policies that discourage work-related activities (like email) during off hours.


Conclusion

Fatigue continues to be a widespread and significant problem in the workplace. Unfortunately, employees/workers dealing with fatigue rarely report it, which can result in serious consequences. Fatigue is not something that employees should feel they have to hide – so, as an employer, be part of the solution, not the problem. Help your fatigued employees.


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References


7 Signs of Fatigue and How it Affects the Workplace — OMAG. (2021, May 1). OMAG; OMAG. https://www.omag.org/news/2021/5/1/7-signs-of-fatigue-and-how-it-affects-the-workplace


Fatigue – Better Health Channel. (n.d.). Better Health Channel – Better Health Channel. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/fatigue


Fatigue – National Safety Council. (n.d.). National Safety Council – Save Lives, from the Workplace to Anyplace. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.nsc.org/workplace/safety-topics/fatigue/fatigue-home


Fatigue management in the workplace – PMC. (n.d.). PubMed Central (PMC). Retrieved July 11, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4525425/


Fatigue: What Can Employers Do? – National Safety Council. (n.d.). National Safety Council – Save Lives, from the Workplace to Anyplace. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.nsc.org/workplace/safety-topics/fatigue/fatigue-what-can-employers-do


What is Fatigue Costing Your Company? – National Safety Council. (n.d.). National Safety Council – Save Lives, from the Workplace to Anyplace. Retrieved July 12, 2022, from https://www.nsc.org/workplace/safety-topics/fatigue/what-is-fatigue-costing-your-company


Work and Fatigue | NIOSH | CDC. (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 11, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/fatigue/default.html#:~:text=In%20workplace%20settings%2C%2
0it%20is,or%20working%20in%20hot%20environments.

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