Feel fatigued? Your employees might be, too. In some workplaces, working through physical ailments, chronic stress, or a general lack of wellbeing is normalized. Environments that embrace “hustle culture” may even encourage and commend individuals who put work before personal wellbeing. Even when companies have policies in place to protect the health and safety of their workers, many employees still feel the pressure to push themselves past their limits in order to get the job done. In this type of culture, fatigue can seem trivial. After all, isn’t everyone tired? These days, the global workforce is facing high burnout rates and increased work demands caused by the recession and staffing shortages. Surely, fatigue is nothing to worry about.
But the numbers tell a different story. The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada reported that in 2021 there were 277,217 lost-time injuries, most of which resulted in traumatic injuries and were caused by a bodily reaction and exertion. Additionally, there were 1,081 work-related fatalities. Conditions like fatigue can lead to an employee making a mistake or rushing a process, which can cause injury, illness, or even death. But companies can protect workers from the effects of fatigue. Most workplace incidents are preventable by proactively reviewing and improving health and safety measures. Part of this includes exercising due diligence and leading by example.
What does fatigue feel like?
There’s a clear difference between feeling fatigued and feeling refreshed, but a worker’s perception of their energy may blur if they’ve been working through fatigue for a while. In general, a worker can be considered fatigued if they feel tired, drowsy, weary, sleepy, or lethargic. However, everyone shows signs of fatigue differently, so it may be difficult to recognize it in others. Some employees become giddy, others lose their appetite or struggle to stay awake. These signs and symptoms can even be similar to other conditions, such as a mental health condition, which makes them even more difficult to interpret.
Most employees will experience fatigue at some point in their career. Any employee in any industry or role can feel fatigued at work. While people tend to associate fatigue with physical labour, it can also be caused by mentally demanding work, such as tasks that require analysis, problem-solving, or creativity. New tasks that help us achieve aspirational goals require even more brain effort, and we require more recovery time afterwards to avoid burning out.
Other factors, like work schedules, can also increase fatigue. The government of Alberta reported that most serious workplace incidents occur between midnight and 6:00 a.m. or between 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., which is when workers are tired. Even working from home can create conditions that induce fatigue. Personal factors, including stress levels, sleep quality, and working multiple jobs, can also affect an employee’s energy and focus at work.
Risks and impact
Fatigue can impair employees’ mental and physical functioning, affecting their ability to work safely. Tired employees may experience:
- Difficulty staying awake;
- Slower reaction times;
- Reduced memory and concentration; and
- Increased risk-taking behaviour.
Fatigue not only puts the tired employee at risk of hurting themselves, it increases the risk of workplace accidents, injuries, and fatalities for everyone in the workplace.
Due diligence means taking all reasonable measures in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of employees. This responsibility includes identifying and controlling workplace hazards, such as fatigue. To achieve a snooze- and risk-free workplace, employers should adopt the following approach:
- Assess the workplace for hazards. Examine specific tasks, the work environment, and work schedules to identify risks.
- Implement controls. Prevent the onset of fatigue in employees by controlling identified factors.
- Outline expectations. Companies should have policies that set clear expectations for employees regarding fatigue and being fit to work.
- Offer accommodations if necessary. Employers have a duty to inquire where they suspect an employee has needs related to a disability that may require accommodation.
Every employer can reduce workplace injuries and save lives by proactively identifying and addressing hazards in their workplace, including fatigue. Remember, working safely is in everyone’s best interests. Working while fatigued is not.
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