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Workplace fatigue and tiredness represent significant challenges because engagement, productivity, and errors impact the bottom line.

The cost of fatigue

To some, fatigue might seem like a minor concern, yet it costs companies millions of dollars each year in excess costs, accidents and errors as well as costs to society as a whole. The social cost for fatigue-related crashes in 2019 was $283 million.

If you are struggling to reduce these costs, you may be experiencing the “iceberg effect” – where worker fatigue is contributing to operational costs.

Iceberg effect of fatigue

Image showing an iceberg with factors above and below the water. Worker fatigue is the factor above the water. Accidents, errors, absenteeism, overtime, turnover and compliance violations are the factors sitting below the water.

The following costs are often inflated by the repercussions of worker fatigue:

  1. Absenteeism – costs New Zealand businesses $1.79 billion in 2018. A New Zealand workplace survey found an estimated 7.4 million workdays were lost through absenteeism in 2019.
    Source: BusinessNZ Workplace wellness report 2019(external link)
  2. Compliance-related violations – sleep deprived individuals have been shown to have trouble with maintaining focus, keeping track of events, maintaining interest in outcomes and attending to activities judged to be non-essential.
  3. Lost productivity – sleep deprived individuals experience performance degradations, such as increased effort to complete tasks, decreased vigilance and slower response time. 
  4. Increased errors – when sleep deprived or fatigued, cognitive declines increase concurrently with a worker’s time on a given task, resulting in an increased number of errors. These errors include mistakes of both commission (ie performing an act that leads to harm) and omission (ie not performing an expected task).
  5. Overtime – when absenteeism rates are high, relief coverage is necessary to cover shifts. This means that other workers are required to work substantial amounts of overtime to cover the vacant positions.
  6. Accidents – shift work can put you and others at risk, as you are more likely to make mistakes and have accidents when you are tired. 

Employer responsibilities

Employers are responsible under the Health and Safety at Work (HSW) Act 2015 to provide and maintain a work environment where employees are not exposed to hazards. Fatigue is a hazard, and an employee suffering from fatigue is a hazard to other employees.

WorkSafe's advice and resources for business owners(external link)

Identify the risk of fatigue in your workplace

Fatigue is often caused by a number of inter-related factors.

This checklist provides a guide to identify the risks of fatigue, but it is not exhaustive. If the answer is yes to any of the questions, fatigue risks will need to be assessed and strategies put in place to manage fatigue.

Fatigue checklist [PDF, 21 KB]

How to tell if someone is fatigued

Behaviour Signs of fatigue
Changes in mood
  • More irritable than usual.
  • Uncommunicative.
  • Easily frustrated by tasks.
  • Doesn’t care – disengaged.
  • Repeatedly arriving late for work.
  • Increased absenteeism.
Changes in alertness
  • Looks tired.
  • Yawns a lot.
  • Has micro sleeps.
  • Behaves “automatically”.
  • Slurs speech.
  • Rubs eyes.
Decreased task performance
  • Takes unusual risks.
  • Cuts corners to get the job done.
  • Shows poor judgement of distance, time or speed.
  • Does things in the wrong order.
  • Doesn’t complete tasks.
  • Moves slowly - lacks energy.
  • Reverts to old habits.
  • Responds slowly to situations.
  • Short term memory problems and an inability to concentrate.
  • Poor decision making and judgement.
Lack of focus
  • Preoccupied with parts of a problem.
  • Loses the big picture.
  • Misses warning signs.
  • Unable to stay focused on a task.
  • Has a fixed gaze.
  • Reports blurred vision.
  • Fails to interpret a situation correctly.

Strategies to reduce the risk of fatigue

Work factors that can contribute to fatigue include:

  • Job demands – workload and breaks, work duration and type of work.
  • Work organisation – roster design, work predictability, work environment, remote working and commuting times ie overtime, emergencies, break downs and callouts.

Work related fatigue can and should be assessed and managed at an organisational level. 

Work planning and scheduling

The way work is planned and scheduled, the time work is performed, the amount of time worked and the time of breaks between or within work shifts can increase the risk of fatigue.

Scheduling work in a way that fails to allow employees enough time for travel to and from work or to physically recover and socialise can produce fatigue.

Working at times when employees are biologically programmed to sleep, working for long periods of time, changes to rosters or unplanned work, overtime, emergencies, break downs and call outs also produce fatigue.

Strategies to reduce the risk:

  • Make sure your workers take regular, quality, rest breaks in their working day.
  • Make sure working hours are not too long. If longer working days are required, consider staggered start and finish times, or longer rest breaks and periods off work.
  • Schedule tasks suitably throughout a work period to avoid high risk jobs during low function times. A person’s ability to be alert or focus attention is not constant throughout the day with low points between 3am and 5am, and between 3pm and 5pm.
  • Negotiate with your workers if overtime is required. Monitor and place limits around overtime worked. Avoid incentives to work excessive hours.
  • Monitor and place limits around shift swapping and on-call duties.

Mental and physical demands

The mental and physical demands of work can contribute to an employee becoming impaired by fatigue in a number of ways.

Concentrating for extended periods of time, performing repetitious or monotonous work or performing work that requires continued physical effort can increase the risk of fatigue by producing mental and physical tiredness.

Strategies to reduce the risk:

  • Using machinery to assist with tasks.
  • Limiting periods of excessive physical or mental demands where possible.
  • Use job rotations to avoid workers losing focus on a given task.
  • Put in place appropriate rest breaks to allow workers to recharge.

Workplace or environmental conditions

Working in harsh and uncomfortable environmental conditions can contribute to an employee becoming impaired by fatigue in a number of ways.

Heat, cold, noise, vibration and hazardous substances are some of the environmental conditions that can make employees tire more quickly and impair their performance.

Strategies to reduce the risk:

  • Avoid working during periods of extreme temperature or minimise exposure through job rotation.
  • Providing shelter and adequate facilities for rest, sleep, meal breaks and other requirements where appropriate.
  • Provide drinking water.
Organisational factors

A positive culture in an organisation that addresses the issue of fatigue and identifies signs of fatigue can help to mitigate incidents.

If managers are aware of the issue of fatigue and educate employees to identify fatigue in themselves and others it will help to reduce the risks of fatigue.

There are numerous factors that affect fatigue levels, and addressing these factors through a structured educational programme can also reduce the risk.   

Strategies to reduce the risk:

  • Training and encouraging workers, managers, and supervisors to recognise signs of fatigue.
  • Encouraging the reporting of issues and concerns.

The amount and quality of sleep employees get can greatly impact the risk of fatigue in the workplace. Shift workers also experience a disruption to their natural sleeping rhythms.

Employers must look at ways to minimise the impact on their sleeping patterns by designing rosters that give reasonable time to catch up on sleep and prevent sleep debt from building.

Reducing the stigma around napping and providing napping facilities can help reduce staff fatigue.

Strategies to reduce the risk:

  • Design rosters well to allow for good sleep opportunity and recovery time between workdays.
  • Make sure that rosters are designed to remove any sleep debt (note: sleep loss is cumulative).
  • Design rosters that minimise disruptions to natural sleeping rhythms. Avoid work starts before 6am where possible. If night work is required, limit the number of night shifts in a row that your workers can work.

Training and information for employees

Providing information and training to employees about the factors that can contribute to fatigue and the associated risks will help them to not only do their job but also minimise the risks of fatigue in the workplace.

Training should be arranged so it is available to all workers and include:

  • the work health and safety of everyone in the workplace
  • the factors that can contribute to fatigue and risks that may be associated with it
  • symptoms of fatigue
  • the body clock and how fatigue can affect it
  • procedures for reporting fatigue
  • effects of impairment due to medication, drugs and alcohol
  • nutrition, fitness and health issues relating to fatigue
  • balancing work and personal demands.

Managers and supervisors should be trained to:

  • recognise fatigue
  • understand how fatigue can be managed, and how to design suitable rosters and work schedules in consultation with workers
  • take appropriate action when a worker is displaying fatigue related impairment.