Everyone knows the cliché about falling asleep on the job. But it does happen to exhausted personnel. A worker might nod off completely, unknowingly micro-sleep for moments or be drowsy for an entire shift. In active, hazardous environments, any of these tendencies can result in productivity losses, errors, injury or even death. It’s important for employees of all levels to understand what causes fatigue and sleepiness and how to address and prevent it.
Shift Work and Other Causes of Fatigue
It’s overly simplistic to say that tired workers just need to get more rest. Life off the job can be busy and challenging, and some employees face or develop draining health conditions. Also, of course, work itself can be physically and mentally demanding.
This is especially likely to be the case when an operation cannot adhere to traditional hours of eight daylight hours on five consecutive days, each separated by at least eight hours of rest. Fatigue can quickly result from an excess of consecutive hours or days, or from sleep deprivation caused by evening or overnight working hours.
Shift workers are the most likely to report problems with physical, mental or emotional well-being. Due to our internal body clocks (circadian rhythms), most workers can never truly adjust to daytime sleeping, particularly when shifts periodically rotate. Lack of sleep sadly worsens the strain that shift workers cite most often—missing friends and family who keep different schedules.
It can be a vicious cycle when fatigue compounds stresses such as relationship or financial difficulties, as well as health issues such as heart disease, poor digestion and mental illness.
How Managers Can Help
As a manager, you can help minimize worker fatigue in many ways:
1. Optimize work schedules with measures like these:
- Limit consecutive night shifts. Some researchers suggest a maximum of two to four nights in a row. Avoid permanent night shifts, because generally, night workers never fully catch up on sleep.
- Schedule adequate recovery time. Many sites allow 24 to 48 hours between shift changes. Avoid extended shifts, overtime and long stretches of on/off. Even “mini-vacations” of four to seven days do not provide adequate recovery after 10 or more consecutive work days.
- Factor in family needs. Regular, predictable scheduling allows family-related planning. And even if schedules require over five straight work days, employees need some free time to sync up with family.
- Examine all aspects of timing. Consider when workers will be most tired so as to best plan types of work within a shift, frequency of breaks and start/end times.
- Maintain good working conditions. Optimize lighting, air quality, temperature and break areas. Establish procedures and post reminders that promote cleanliness. Improve comfort with anti-fatigue and workstation mats. Ensure access to health care during convenient hours for shift workers.
2. Watch for signs of excessive fatigue, including:
- Weariness and sleepiness
- Emotional swings such as irritability or giddiness
- Reduced alertness, lack of concentration and memory
- Depression or lack of motivation
- Increased susceptibility to headaches or illness
- Loss of appetite and digestive problems
3. Educate employees and their families about details such as those discussed in this article, especially when workers are new to shift work, so everyone knows what to expect.
How Workers Can Help Themselves
Managers alone cannot ensure that workers are well-rested. Many industries and situations do require shift work and extended hours, and no organization can resolve all off-hours challenges. Employees must do what they can to get adequate rest. Here are key areas for learning and optimizing what works best for you, the individual worker:
- Strategize for sleep. Find the times of day, bedroom conditions and daily routines that help you get good sleep.
- Exercise. Physical activity and training aid sleep and resistance to stress and illness. Experiment to find optimal times of day and types, amounts and frequency of exercise.
- Relax. Life is not just work and sleep. It’s also important to unwind. Find and do what helps you kick back and release stress.
- Eat well. Good food choices help you rest and maintain good health and energy. Note the types of meals that are hard for you to digest and interfere with your sleep.
- Use caffeine wisely. The Center for Disease Control recognizes—and even recommends—caffeine as a stimulant that can help counteract fatigue. But this comes with the familiar cautions against using too much caffeine or using it at times of day that will disrupt sleep. It’s also important to note that many questions surround high-caffeine energy drinks. While many workers look to them for a boost, uncertainties relate to how they sometimes affect heartbeat, respiration and nervous condition, as well as the crash in energy that can occur as the effects wear off. Take note of how any drink affects your ability to focus and safely execute tasks.
Being alert and energetic on the job is not only a matter of comfort and satisfaction, but of safety. Precautions such as signs, lockout/tagout devices and barricades are necessary in many industries, but they will not always protect against a moment of inattention, persistent grogginess or literally falling asleep at the switch. To protect everyone, managers need to keep work from taking too much out of employees, and employees have to help themselves get good rest and sleep.