Fatigue in the workplace

Many life factors can cause fatigue, which can be difficult to recognise. It’s important that individuals and organisations work towards reducing it. Remember, the only cure for fatigue is sleep, but it’s better not to get fatigued in the first place.

What is the impact of fatigue?

Fatigued workers don’t perform as well, are less productive, and are more likely to have accidents and injuries. Fatigue affects the ability to think clearly. As a result, 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.

Shift work is particularly hazardous, as often you are required to drive at night, at a time when your body is programmed to be asleep. Shift workers are six times more likely to be involved in a fatigue-related road crash than any other workers. Make safe driving a priority in your organisation and you will save money and lives, see Your safe driving policy (PDF 568K) for further information.

Causes of fatigue

Many life and work factors can contribute to fatigue. Some of the main causes are:

  • inadequate sleep (most adults need seven to eight hours)
  • not enough time to sleep (extended working hours, irregular working hours, shift work, having more than one job)
  • poor quality sleep (workplace stress, sleep disorders)
  • extended waking and long work hours
  • shift work (upsets natural sleep rhythms)
  • ageing (teenagers tend to sleep later, older workers sleep less).

Recognising signs of fatigue

Common signs and symptoms are:

  • sleepiness
  • irritability (more than usual)
  • less conversational, or less clear in communication
  • reduced attention span, more easily distracted
  • slower reactions, clumsiness, poorer hand-eye coordination, reduced manual skills
  • slower thinking
  • reduced short-term memory, forgetful
  • inability to handle large amounts of information under time pressure, losing ‘the big picture’
  • less creative problem solving
  • cutting corners to get the job finished
  • poor judgment of distance, speed or time
  • increased risk-taking
  • uncontrolled sleep (microsleeps).

What can I do to reduce fatigue?

Everyone has a role to play in preventing and reducing injuries in the workplace.

Tips for employees

Employees have a responsibility to arrive fit for work and to behave safely in the workplace. This includes arriving at work well rested, and understanding and managing fatigue-related risks in the workplace. To help, you can do the following:

  • manage your sleep time: have a regular bed time; make sure your bedroom is comfortable; avoid caffeine for five hours before bedtime
  • manage your home life: make getting enough sleep a priority; avoid cutting back on sleep in order to fit everything in
  • manage your work life: vary or rotate work tasks so you stay alert; take a break if you’re tired; tell your supervisor or manager you’re feeling fatigued
  • eat and drink properly: eat light nutritious meals (heavy meals make you drowsy); drink plenty of water; watch your caffeine intake
  • avoid medications that make you sleepy: antihistamines, travel sickness tablets, sleeping pills, some cold preparations and pain killers
  • take power naps.

Tips for employers

The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (external link) requires employers to take all practical steps to ensure the safety of employees while at work. As an employer you must develop safe systems of work, and identify, assess and control hazards. Fatigued workers can be a significant hazard.

As with other workplace hazards, you need to share the management of fatigue with your employees, especially because it involves factors both inside and outside of work.

Work-wise, look into:

  • length of shifts: take account of the physical and mental load of the work when determining shift length
  • distribution of leisure time: allow for rest and recovery
  • regularity of shift system: allow workers to prepare for work
  • previous hours and days worked: monitor and take account of your workers’ previous hours and days. The effects of fatigue are cumulative - workers may have sleep debt due to the length of previous shifts
  • type of work being performed: pay particular attention to the level of physical or mental effort required
  • time of day work is being performed: arrange work so that high risk tasks are scheduled at the times when workers are performing at their best, outside body clock low points
  • recovery time from sleep debt: provide workers with at least two unrestricted nights of sleep in a row
  • breaks: the frequency and length of breaks needs to match the length of shift and the effort demanded by the work.

Factors outside of work to be considered:

  • human biology: each individual’s sleep pattern, body clock, health and age
  • life outside work: family and friends, social commitments, commuting, standard of living.

For more information see:

Related information

The following brochures and posters can be ordered from the ACC Publications site:

ACC4657 Fatigue power nap poster (PDF 131K)

ACC4656 Fatigue warning signs (PDF 134K)

ACC4655 Fatigue: driving tired could kill you (PDF 261K)

ACC4654 Fatigue: if you're driving tired, you're driving dangerous (PDF 285K)

ACC4653 Fatigue wallet card (PDF 114K)

ACC4640 Fatigue rating card (PDF 548K)

ACC4315 Fatigue: Wake up to the danger (PDF 271K)

ACC4309 Better fuel better performance leaflet (PDF 677K)

ACC4658 Fatigue: there's only one cure (PDF 171K)

ACC4315 Fatigue: Wake up to the danger. Truck drivers (PDF 271K).

Last updated: 23 September 2013