Fatigue in the workplace

Fatigue is a workplace hazard, even though someone’s fatigue may be the result of work or out of work factors. As with other workplace hazards, management and individuals need to work together to reduce the risk and impact of fatigue. The only cure for fatigue is sleep, but it’s best not to get fatigued in the first place.

What is the impact of fatigue?

Fatigue is a workplace hazard because it affects your ability to think clearly and act appropriately. Fatigued workers are less alert, don’t perform well, are less productive and are more likely to have accidents and injuries.

People who are fatigued are not good at recognising their own level of impairment, and can be unaware that they are not functioning at their best. In the worst case scenario they can drop off to sleep in the middle of a task, which can have fatal consequences.

What causes fatigue?

Fatigue is the end result of:

  • inadequate sleep for repair and recovery of our body (in each 24-25 hour period)
  • working out of sync with your natural body clock (the natural cycle is to work during daylight and sleep when it is dark)
  • extreme physical or mental exertion.

However a range of contributing factors can increase the risk of fatigue. Some factors are work based and some personal:

  • work scheduling, rostering or timing
  • workload being machine paced, complex or monotonous, physically or mentally strenuous (or both)
  • work environment, eg heat cold, vibration, noise
  • lifestyle, family responsibilities, ill health.

People who do shift work and heavy vehicle drivers are particularly at risk of fatigue because their natural body clock and sleep rhythms are disrupted. For example research shows shift workers are 6 times more likely to be involved in a fatigue-related road crash than any other workers.

What can I do to reduce fatigue?

Tips for employers

Fatigue is a workplace hazard, and it needs to be managed in the same way as other hazards. Employers can:

  • manage the workplace environment and practices to minimise the factors that could contribute to fatigue
  • make sure employees understand why they need to manage the risk of fatigue and how to minimise their fatigue level
  • encourage staff to manage their personal out of work fatigue risk factors.

Tips for employees

Work with your employer to manage fatigue-related risks in the workplace. Some simple things you can do at work are:

  • vary work tasks so you stay alert
  • take regular breaks
  • tell your supervisor or manager if you’re feeling fatigued.

Outside of work you can reduce your risk of fatigue by:

  • making sleep a priority; avoid cutting back on sleep in order to fit everything else in
  • improving the quality and quantity of your sleep; have a regular bed time routine, make sure your bedroom is dark, cool and comfortable; get treatment for sleep disorders
  • choose what you eat and drink carefully: eat light nutritious meals (heavy meals make you drowsy); drink plenty of water; minimise your caffeine and alcohol intake
  • learn the warning signs of fatigue and to recognise them in yourself, so that you can take a break or have a powernap.

More about sleep

Some of the main causes of inadequate sleep are:

  • poor quality sleep, which is caused by interruptions to the sleep cycle, ie waking often
  • not enough sleep, which is caused by not getting to sleep, being awake for long periods, sleeping only in 3-4 hour blocks, sleep disorders (especially sleep apnoea), and ageing (older people sleep less)
  • not enough time to sleep, which is caused by extended working hours, irregular working hours, having more than one job, family demands or study.

Most adults need 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours, preferably during the hours of darkness.

Sleep debt builds up when someone regularly has less sleep than they need, and sleep debt leads to fatigue.

Related information

Last updated: 7 July 2014

Last reviewed: 12 June 2014