We live in a culture where we constantly push our bodies and minds to the limit. We suppress natural impulses to sleep by ingesting stimulants such as sugar, caffeine and tobacco; we spend evenings glued to screens that mess with our circadian rhythms; we absorb far more information and stimuli in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime; we subscribe to a culture of overwork, where long hours and constant exhaustion are heralded as markers of success. At some point, something has got to give. Consistently ignoring our need for rest and recovery virtually guarantees the onset of fatigue.
What is fatigue?
Fatigue occurs when we’ve pushed too hard for too long and can’t easily bounce back. Safe Work Australia defines fatigue as ‘more than feeling tired and drowsy. In a work context, fatigue is mental and/or physical exhaustion that reduces your ability to perform your work safely and effectively’. Signs of fatigue may include tiredness even after sleep, slow reflexes, short term memory problems and an inability to concentrate, blurred vision or impaired visual perception and a need for extended sleep during days off work. Fatigued individuals may also experience muscle weakness or pain, anxiety, mood swings, headaches, dizziness and hallucinations.
Dangers of fatigue
Most of us would never dream of getting behind a wheel while intoxicated. But did you know that a person who drives after being awake for 17 hours faces the same risk of a crash as a driver with a blood alcohol reading that is over the legal limit? Fatigued driving accounts for 10 to 30 per cent of all car crashes in Australia. On country roads, one in four accidents that involve only one car are due to the driver falling asleep. In the workplace, reduced alertness due to fatigue results in nearly 10,000 serious workplace injuries in Australia each year, according to a study from Monash University. Fatigue in the workplace is particularly dangerous for workers and those around them when operating a fixed or mobile high-risk plant, driving a road vehicle, working at heights, taking part in medical or surgical procedures, working with flammable or explosive substances, or undertaking electrical work. Not only do the symptoms of fatigue have dangerous flow on effects – in extreme cases, fatigue itself can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Japan has a word for this phenomenon – Karōshi – which translates to ‘death from overwork’.
What causes fatigue?
While fatigue is often simply attributed to the hectic pace of modern-day life, it may be triggered by a wide range of factors, such as underlying medical issues, lifestyle factors, workplace-related challenges or mental health problems. Medical causes of fatigue include thyroid disorder, heart disease or diabetes. Lifestyle-related causes may include alcohol, drugs, a poor diet, a lack of regular exercise or sleep disturbances. Workplace-related causes of fatigue may include shift work, long hours, a stressful environment (excessive noise, temperature extremes), interpersonal issues (bullying, conflicts with colleagues) and a lack of work-life balance. Psychological causes of fatigue may include depression, anxiety, stress or grief.
Managing fatigue in the workplace
While fatigue management is a shared responsibility, employers are legally obligated to ensure the health and safety of workers while they are at work. It is important for organisations to develop robust fatigue risk management systems to protect workers. Employers should check in regularly with employees to ensure they are adequately supported by the fatigue management systems in place, taking care to evaluate how job demands, environmental conditions, and scheduling of work hours are impacting each employee. According to The Australian Institute, one third of Australians do not take their allocated annual leave. By keeping track of employee’s leave entitlements, leaders can help ensure their staff are adequately rested, which in turn boosts staff wellbeing, morale, and productivity. Often, employees may take a ‘grin and bear it’ approach, so even if they respond that everything is fine, it’s important for employers to be attuned to tell-tale signs of fatigue in their staff.
Workers also have a duty to take reasonable care of their health and safety at work, and ensure their actions do not adversely affect the health or safety of others. Workers can responsibly manage fatigue by complying with their organisation’s policies and procedures relating to fatigue, turning up to work adequately rested, seeking medical advice if problems persist, communicating their fatigue management needs to their supervisor (taking a break when needed, adjusting the work environment where possible) and looking out for signs of fatigue in colleagues.
General fatigue management
Outside of the work environment, there are many small, everyday actions we can take to reduce our risk of fatigue and maintain healthy energy levels. Basic selfcare such as getting at least eight hours of good quality sleep each night will ensure we are functioning at our best. Simple steps such as removing the TV and other electronics like laptops and smart phones from the bedroom will enable us to wind down effectively and sleep more deeply at night. Avoiding rigorous exercise an hour prior to going to bed and instead trying gentle yoga or meditation before sleeping will help alleviate stress and ease us into a restful state. Eating a well-balanced diet, avoiding excess alcohol and staying well hydrated will help us maintain our energy levels. Avoiding sugary and carbohydrate-heavy meals will help avoid energy crashes that follow a blood glucose level spike. Maintaining a regular exercise schedule will ensure we remain physically healthy and mentally alert. The Australian Government Department of Health recommends a weekly combination of 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate activity (brisk walking, swimming) or 1.25 – 2.5 hours of vigorous activity (jogging, fast cycling) for adults ages 18 to 64 years. If you are still experiencing symptoms of fatigue after taking all reasonable lifestyle measures of fatigue management, visit a doctor to assess if there are any underlying medical or mental health issues that may be affecting your energy.
The good news is that in most cases, fatigue is caused by a combination of lifestyle, social, psychological and general wellbeing issues rather than an underlying medical condition. It’s possible to make a full recovery after making the necessary adjustments to treat and manage fatigue. Each year, around 1.5 million Australians see their doctor about fatigue, and we can assume there are countless other Australians who experience symptoms but just try to ‘push through’ regardless. The most important step you can take in reducing your own risk of fatigue is simple: listen to your body. Avoid the temptation to continuously prop up your energy levels artificially and instead, rest when you need to. Whether at work, home, or out and about, effective fatigue management will support your health, safety and enjoyment of life – and that of those around you.