Fatigue equals high costs for workers, employers

By Delia Treaster, PhD, CPE, BWC Ergonomic Technical Advisor

“I’m so tired.” How often have you said this? Fatigue is a normal part of everyday life.

Everyone gets tired after a long day at work or after a sleepless night. Even prolonged sitting can make us feel tired; just imagine how you feel after a long drive. Most of the time, we can recover quickly after taking a break or getting a good night’s sleep.

But what happens if fatigue is a chronic condition? Chronic fatigue could be the result of an undiagnosed medical condition, overwork or sleep deprivation. Diabetes, anemia and sleep apnea are some of the medical conditions that can cause chronic fatigue. Work can be another source of chronic fatigue. Shift work, extended work hours or physically intense jobs are work factors that contribute to chronic fatigue.

The high cost of fatigue
Chronic fatigue has a high cost for workers and employers. The personal cost of chronic fatigue is always feeling tired, as if you just don’t have enough energy for routine activities. It can worsen your health as well. For example, undiagnosed sleep apnea can rob you of a good night’s sleep, resulting in daytime sleepiness and lethargy.

Poor sleep has been linked with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, stroke, hypertension and heart failure. Getting an accurate medical diagnosis, then receiving proper treatment should solve the underlying medical causes for chronic fatigue.

Work-related chronic fatigue also has high costs for employers. Tired workers are less productive and less safe. They may make more mistakes because they’re too tired to pay attention to details or don’t remember procedures properly. Tired workers may be tempted to take shortcuts and may not comply with standard operating procedures and safety regulations.

More accidents occur when workers are fatigued; there are more accidents and injuries on night shift than on day shift. Absenteeism rises with extended work hours and poorly designed shift schedules. Morale and teamwork also suffer when workers are tired and irritable. This can lead to poorer quality of both goods and customer service.

Other costs include increased re-work due to poorer quality; greater overtime to compensate for greater absenteeism; and more worker injuries from overexertions or repetitive motions. The overall cost can be millions of dollars lost every year in fatigue-related expenses. Using extended hours and overtime instead of hiring additional workers may seem to be a cost-effective way of increasing production while controlling labor costs, but in light of the true cost of chronically fatigued workers, it is short-sighted and counterproductive.

Employers can take proactive steps to reduce work-related fatigue. Scheduling work shifts to avoid disrupting workers’ sleep schedules will help them get a good night’s sleep and be well-rested. Re-designing work to reduce the physical demands of the job can reduce excessive fatigue and overexertions and keep workers safe.

Fatigue is a physiological state, one that cannot be overcome with willpower, training or education. Sufficient rest and recovery time is the best way to reduce fatigue and its associated costs.

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