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Fatigue is one of the biggest detriments to workplace performance, yet it often gets overlooked or ignored. Fatigue can affect anyone, whether you work as a receptionist, a truck driver, a police officer, or an accountant. Often, fatigue is the elephant in the office. Don’t avoid the critical conversation about factors that may be negatively impacting your employees’ health and productivity. Here’s what employers should know about fatigue.

The Stats on Fatigue

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit public service organization that promotes health and safety in the U.S., discusses fatigue among their “Workplace Safety” topics. Strikingly, they report that more than 43% of workers are sleep-deprived, and this figure comes with serious consequences. In addition to the immediate dangers of drowsy driving as a commuter, chronic sleep deprivation contributes to conditions like depression, and obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Night shift workers, in particular, struggle to achieve adequate sleep, with 62% complaining about sleep loss.

Did you know? You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are fatigued. Losing just two hours of sleep is similar to the effect of drinking three beers. Being awake for more than 20 hours is the equivalent of being legally drunk.

How Fatigue Affects Workers and Work Performance

Nonstandard work schedules, such as night and rotating shifts, are increasingly more common, with 30% of American workers reporting a schedule that is outside of a “regular daytime shift.”

According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), fatigue in workers not only arises from sleep disruptions but aspects of the workplace or associated tasks. Stress, physically and mentally demanding tasks, and working in hot environments are all contributing factors to fatigue.

Additionally, symptoms of fatigue are not limited to sleepiness. Slow reaction times, reduced attention, limited concentration, impaired judgement, and poor short-term memory can all arise as a result of extreme fatigue. This can pose safety and health risks for workers in any occupation or industry, NIOSH concludes.

In an article for the Industrial Psychiatry Journal entitled “Fatigue management in the workplace,” Khosro Sadeghniiat-Haghighi and Zohreh Yazdi discuss how fatigue symptoms manifest and affect work performance. People struggling with persistent fatigue tend to communicate poorly with their surrounding environments and are quick to anger in interactions with coworkers, reducing their ability to safely and effectively complete tasks. Sleep-deprived shift workers in particular have the highest rate of catastrophic incidents. 

Signs of a Fatigued Employee

Though conditions related to fatigue are varied and may present themselves differently depending on the individual, it may be helpful to know the signs that commonly indicate fatigue in employees.

The Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group (OMAG), an organization that provides insurance and risk management solutions to over 500 cities/municipalities in Oklahoma, has a helpful guide that includes the common signs and symptoms that fatigued workers may exhibit. 

Seven signs that an employee is experiencing fatigue are: Tiredness, weariness, or sleepiness Irritability Reduced alertness, concentration, or memory Lack of motivation Increased mistakes or lapses in judgment Headaches Increased susceptibility to illness

Beyond the more obvious signs of tiredness such as yawning and drooping heads, employers should keep an eye out for workers who seem more irritable, less motivated, are more frequently ill, and experience unusual lapses in judgment or memory, among other indicators. Showing concern for the employee’s wellbeing when these issues arise is key to forging a path forward that is focused on improving their work life and their contributions to your organization.

Costs of Fatigued Workers

Fatigue not only affects an employee’s ability to function and thrive in their place of work, it often contributes to major financial losses for companies and organizations. 

According to the National Safety Council, the decrease in productivity alone costs employers $1,200 to $3,100 per employee annually, totaling $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity. As sleep deprivation is a major cause of fatigue, it is reported that workers who sleep fewer than six hours per night cost employers about six workdays a year in productivity.

Considering employees who work night or rotating shifts experience the greatest disruption to their normal sleep cycles, it should come as no surprise that they miss more than twice the amount of workdays as the average daytime shift worker. Absenteeism is costly, but presenteeism, or being present at work but not fully functioning, is even more of a detriment. 

In a typical company with 1,000 employees, it is estimated that the employer will shoulder more than $1 million each year in fatigue-related costs, with approximately $272,000 lost due to absenteeism and $776,000 due to presenteeism. This figure doesn’t include the estimated $536,000 in healthcare costs that 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.

How to Help Your Fatigued Employees

The first step of successfully reducing fatigue in your workforce is precise measurement of the problem. Determining your starting point will take the guesswork out of developing targeted strategies. Fatigue is a complex issue, no doubt, but objective measurement is possible with fatigue biomarker testing

Once you better understand the problem, it becomes easier to develop solutions. In their paper “Fatigue management in the workplace,” Sadeghniiat-Haghighi and Yazdi identify several methods of reducing fatigue that fall under the categories of either preventative or operational. 

Preventative strategies include minimizing sleep loss, which can be achieved through measures including promoting good sleep habits and permitting short naps on the job. Though sleeping on the job has long evoked an image of an unproductive and unmotivated worker, it just might be the key to boosting productivity in the long run. The National Safety Council endorses this strategy, saying that 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.”

A photo of a worker napping at their desk. What employers should know about fatigue is that the solutions to reducing fatigue can be as simple as giving workers permission to take a short nap during their shift.There’s nothing lazy about a power nap. Research shows that short naps improve both mood and performance.

In general, the NSC emphasizes the importance of educating employees on healthy sleep habits and how to achieve them. In order to effectively promote a “sleep health culture,” employers should 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 during off hours.

The Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group also provides guidance in this area, suggesting that employers can be proactive about avoiding worker fatigue through consistent shift schedules with frequent breaks and days off. When possible, managers should aim to distribute workloads and staffing evenly to minimize the risk of employee overexertion. OMAG also supports the development of supervisor and management training programs on monitoring and identifying fatigue in workers, as well as a system for reporting fatigue symptoms and fatigue-related incidents. Providing an insurance plan that covers sleep disorders can be monumental in helping employees and workers get the information and support they need to manage their fatigue.

The Way Forward

Though fatigue is a widespread problem, it is one that is rarely reported within organizations. Employees may not have the resources to be aware of their fatigue problem or solve it on their own. It takes a team effort to overcome persistent fatigue and its effects, and that effort has to start with awareness, education, and implementation of strategies that put employee well-being first. What employers should know about fatigue is that it may be a multi-faceted issue, but small steps go a long way in promoting a successful and safe environment. 

The information in this blog post was adapted from an earlier article written by Kylie Marler, entitled “What Employers Should Know About Fatigue.”

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