The British Safety Council looks at the work-based causes of worker fatigue and seeks to identify what can be done to reduce stress and improve communication
Worker fatigue is a major issue in construction and poses serious safety risks. A survey by the Considerate Constructors Scheme has found that 37% of workers in the industry work more than 50 hours a week, and 58% feel that tiredness affects their productivity. While this is a high-profile example, fatigue should be a major concern for businesses of all sizes, regardless of their industry.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that fatigue costs the UK up to £240m each year in work-related incidents and that it could be a factor in as many as 20% of road accidents. While it cannot be completely avoided, there are several ways in which companies can minimise the impact that fatigue can have on individuals, their colleagues and their wider company.
Causes of worker fatigue
There are multiple and diverse reasons for fatigue. Unbalanced workloads, shift work, stress, and bad habits around health and safety best practices can all contribute to increases in worker fatigue.
Work-based causes of fatigue will vary from industry to industry, but shift working is a major factor, and the resulting impact on sleeping patterns and alertness can put workers at greater risk of mistakes and accidents. A US survey found that accident rates increased by 18% during evening shifts and reach as high as 30% for night shifts.
In office environments, fatigue is less likely to cause accidents, but it can cause productivity to stall. As staff struggle with overtiredness and increased stress, more days are lost to both ill health and reduced productivity. A 2019 survey by AXA PPP Healthcare found that a general sense of burnout around February resulted in three days of the month being lost simply due to reduced productivity.
Analytics and data are becoming essential tools for modern industries to monitor a whole range of factors, from productivity and workflow to stock levels. Similar data-led insight should also be applied from the perspective of pre-empting potential wellbeing issues among staff.
By identifying bottlenecks early, workloads can be adjusted to ensure that sudden changes, which could require overtime or additional work, are dealt with in a way that minimises pinch points and quick changeovers. A tool that has been in use since 2006 is the HSE’s fatigue index (FI). This was created to monitor the effects rotating shifts have on workers in the rail industry, but can be applied to managing employee fatigue in health and emergency services, engineering, or other industries that require irregular working patterns.
In 2018, more than 5 million UK workers averaged 7.5 hours of unpaid overtime per week. While incentivising additional hours can have mutual benefit, ultimately, it is likely to negatively affect the employee’s health and the quality of the work they produce. Overtime should therefore be limited to discourage dramatic increases in hours.
It is important to note that fatigue may not always be work related. However, having a support structure that allows staff the option of flexible hours, or working from home, could help to minimise the impact of external issues on a worker’s wellbeing and productivity. With so many variables, fatigue can affect individuals differently, making careful management essential.
The little things
In many cases, fatigue is the result of several factors accumulating. For this reason, identifying actions which could negate these possible pitfalls could have a dramatic overall effect.
For example, the workplace environment should be optimised to make it as comfortable as possible. This means things like managing extremes of temperature, minimising persistent loud noise and even the colour tone of the lighting. These may seem like small changes on the surface, but the result will be a happier, more alert team.
Staff should also be actively encouraged to take regular breaks and use their annual leave allowance. Equally, management should ensure that shift work rotates forwards, moving from mornings to evenings to nights in order to minimise the impact on routines and sleep patterns.
Rotas should also factor in circadian rhythms to account for dips in focus at certain points of the day. Typically, these occur around 2-4 am and 1-3 pm. During these times, work which requires high concentration, especially those including driving, operating heavy machinery or working at height, should be avoided. In order to manage performance, both managers and staff should consider these rhythms when planning daily schedules.
Communication is key
As with any company policy, the key to successful implementation is to make sure staff are consulted, aware of the processes and are encouraged to contribute by offering suggestions or highlighting concerns.
To underline the importance of worker wellbeing, company policy on fatigue should be made clear to staff as part of a wider health and safety strategy. An effective way to help staff feel actively engaged is to provide them with proper training, such as NEBOSH training courses or IOSH certification, which will help to ensure that everyone can appreciate the benefits of a more prominent safety culture and actively participate in its implementation.
As with all health and safety practices and procedures, measures against fatigue will be at their most effective if implemented through clear policies, regular training and support from all levels of the company. By working together, senior staff can resolve issues and adjust best practices to minimise the impact worker fatigue can have on the individuals, as well as the wider company.
British Safety Council
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