Workplace fatigue is a serious problem for many individuals, such as night shift and on-call workers. However, employee fatigue can happen in any industry or company. Any employee can experience “burnout” or signs of fatigue at work.

According to the National Safety Council, over 43 percent of employees are sleep-deprived. Workplace fatigue is not just a problem for the employee. It can also negatively impact employers.

Employees who are tired at work are more likely to sustain injuries as safety performance decreases when a person is tired. Productivity also decreases. It is estimated that employers lose up to $3,100 per employee each year because of workplace fatigue.

Below we discuss what causes employee fatigue, how to spot signs of fatigue at work, and what employees and employers can do to avoid workplace fatigue.

What Causes Fatigue?

Many factors can cause employee fatigue. Some of those factors are work-related, but some are external factors that impact the employee’s work performance.

Common causes of fatigue at work include:

  • Working in extreme temperatures
  • Strenuous activity at work
  • Irregular work hours
  • Lengthy commutes to and from work
  • Work-related travel
  • Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
  • Certain medications or health conditions
  • Prolonged intense mental activity
  • Prolonged repetitive actions
  • Interrupted sleep or poor quality sleep

Workers in certain professions may be more susceptible to fatigue at work because of specific work conditions. They may have multiple factors that contribute to the cause of their fatigue at work.

Examples of workers who might be at a higher risk of workplace fatigue include truck drivers, emergency responders, night shift workers, swing shift workers, health care providers, construction workers, and airline employees who fly-in and fly-out. However, anyone who works long hours, has a stressful job, or who has a physically or mentally demanding job can experience signs of fatigue at work.

Signs an Employee is Fatigued

There are numerous signs that employees and employers can watch for that indicate a worker is fatigued. Signs of fatigue at work might include, but are not limited to:

  • Weariness
  • Incessant yawning
  • Irritability
  • Reduced alertness
  • Decreased concentration and focus
  • Lack of motivation
  • Increase in the number of mistakes
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems
  • Lapses in judgment
  • Increase the number of illnesses, such as the flu and colds

Being occasionally tired may cause you to yawn or feel sluggish. However, fatigue is a lack of motivation and energy. The signs are more severe and grow worse in intensity if the employee does not get immediate rest and sufficient sleep after that.

The Dangers of Fatigue in the Workplace

Employee fatigue can create a variety of dangers in the workplace. For example, fatigued truckers are more likely to cause trucking accidents and late deliveries. Some states make you file a police report in a truck accident, which reflects poorly on the truck driver and the company.

In some cases, accidents in the workplace can be caused by negligence. Fatigue can contribute to a person’s lapses in judgment. Those lapses in judgment could result in an accident that the company may be held liable for if someone is injured.

Some of the dangers and risks created by workplace fatigue include:

Increased Injuries

Studies and research indicate that working 12 hours per day increases the risk of injury by 37 percent. Working 60 hours a week increases the risk of injury by 23 percent.

Jobs that require overtime work have a 61 percent higher injury rate compared to jobs that do not require overtime work. A decrease in alertness from worker fatigue is a contributing factor for the increases in injury rates for fatigued workers. A decrease in alertness is one of the signs of fatigue at work.

Decreased Productivity

When a worker is fatigued, productivity decreases. Alertness is one factor that causes decreased productivity, but lack of motivation and decreases in energy levels are also factors.

Insomnia costs businesses more than $63 billion in reduced workplace productivity and absenteeism. Sleep apnea has been estimated to cost companies $150 billion each year.

It is estimated that fatigued workers lose 5.6 hours of productivity time each week. Inability to focus and cognitive decline results in a 66 percent rate of lost productivity for fatigued workers.

Poor Decision Making

Occupational fatigue causes 97 percent of workers to have reduced cognitive performance. Poor decision making can lead to workplace injuries and loss of productivity. Fatigued workers may have trouble remembering details, performing tasks, and avoiding mistakes and errors.

Increased Health Problems

Fatigued workers have a higher risk of developing certain health problems. Some health conditions that have been linked to employee fatigue include:

  • Depression and other mental health disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity and poor eating habits
  • Some types of cancer
  • Digestive and stomach problems
  • Reproductive problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Worsening of chronic diseases, such as epilepsy and diabetes
  • Musculoskeletal disorders

Workers who do not seek medical care for fatigue-related illnesses and conditions could develop chronic illnesses that result in disability or death.

How to Counteract Fatigue

The good news is that there are steps employers and employees can take to prevent workplace fatigue. Some of the ways that employers can help employees avoid fatigue in the workplace include:

Create Manageable Workloads

Whenever possible, separate large jobs into smaller tasks. Having a manageable workload reduces the number of hours an employee works each day and week. It also reduces stress and anxiety over meeting deadlines.

Implement Breaks

Require employees to take breaks throughout the day, including a lunch break each day. Some employees work through breaks and lunches. Working without breaks can increase fatigue.

Make it clear that employees should not perform work while on break or at lunch. Do not check email or take calls. Employers may want to consider creating a space for employees to take breaks instead of sitting at their desks.

In addition, make sure that the workspace is designed to increase alertness and energy. Try to have as much natural lighting as possible and supplement with artificial lighting to ensure workspaces are well-lit. Consult a designer to determine what colors and furnishings can help create a productive workspace for employees.

Establish Fatigue Policies

OSHA recommends creating a Fatigue Risk Management Program. Several industries already utilize these programs to help reduce worker fatigue. The program may utilize a variety of tools, such as education programs, training, printable tools, and assessments.

Train Employees to Spot Fatigue

Make sure that employees know the signs of fatigue and what they need to do to avoid fatigue. Education can be one of the most effective ways to avoid fatigue in the workplace.

In addition to training employees to spot fatigue, make sure that you include a process of reporting fatigue and seeking assistance. Employees may need encouragement from their employer to report fatigue. Workers need to know they will not lose their jobs or face retaliation if they report workplace fatigue.

Employers can also encourage workers to get plenty of sleep to reduce the risk of fatigue. Eating a healthy diet, managing stress, and exercise can also help manage fatigue at work.