Fatigue at Work

February 25, 2019 • Missouri Employers Mutual

Fatigue leads to 1.2 million lost work days and costs businesses billions of dollars every year. We talked with Pamala Bobbitt of Cority EHSQ Software about how a lack of sleep impacts workers’ professional lives, and how technology can both worsen the problem and provide some solutions.

Pam started her career as an EHS manager and later moved into the software world. At Cority, she works with customers to find EHS solutions that work and communicate the value of EHS programs back to the organization.

The problem of fatigue – and the costs to businesses

When we talk about fatigue at work, Pam explained that there are two types: lack of sleep and muscle fatigue. We know the importance of ergonomics and that repetitive motions can lead to muscle fatigue and even injury. But until recently, managers may not have considered the impact that lack of sleep has on their business – or may have thought of sleep habits as a problem isolated to a few high-profile industries like transportation.

One reason that fatigue has moved into the spotlight recently may be the increasing prevalence of sleep-tracking technology. “People are trying to be healthier overall, and they’re tracking it more,” Pam said.

Another reason might be that recent studies have sought to quantify the true costs of fatigue at work. In 2016, Rand put out a study connecting lack of sleep to a 13 percent increase in risk of death at work, and a loss of 1.2 million work days per year. When translating the lost time into dollars associated with absenteeism and loss of productivity, some experts estimate that fatigue costs workplaces as much as $77 billion a year.

Fatigue leads to negative long-term health effects

Fatigue can be a problem in any industry, but studies show that it especially affects organizations with shift work. “People who work the night shift sleep, on average, two hours less than everybody else,” Pam explained. Often, they feel more pressure to run errands or fulfill family obligations during the day, when they should be sleeping. In addition to the sleep deprivation, night shift workers are also twice as likely to suffer from sleep apnea and at a 30 percent higher risk for workplace incidents.

Even shifting your sleep patterns on weekends can lead to fatigue over time, a phenomenon called social jetlag. As more research supports the idea of building up sleep debt – whether it’s from staying up late on weekends or frequently switching time zones – we’re realizing the importance of sleep regularity in addition to quantity and quality.

How much sleep do we need?

Most of us have heard that healthy adults need eight hours of sleep per night (the National Sleep Foundation says seven to nine). As our interaction with technology increases, our brains may even need more sleep than they previous did to recharge. Part of the issue is the amount of time we spend looking at screens; the blue light can make falling into a restful sleep more difficult.

Another part is what Pam calls “mom ears.” We spend most of the day with our phones nearby, and many of us have developed a habit of unconsciously keeping an ear out (or an eye out) for notifications – just like parents tend to keep an ear out for their kids in the other room. Being constantly alert can keep you from winding down and getting the rest you need.

Tuck your phone in

Now that we know that screen time can impact sleep quality, there are more and more ways to counteract this problem. Some devices have a built-in nighttime mode that reduces display brightness and removes much of the blue light that can keep you wired long after bedtime. There are also apps that allow notifications to be turned off during certain hours. All of these can certainly help users better define the time in their day dedicated to sleep.

Personally, Pam relies on a simpler solution: “My sleep habits were getting so horrid, I would ‘tuck my phone in’ in another room and close the door. When I would hear it, I would wake up and check my email. The only way that I could break myself of that was to put it in another room, so I could actually get rest.”

How technology can help

Technology may contribute to the growing problem of fatigue at work, but it can also be part of the remedy. As individuals become more conscious of their own health and wellness, the use of personal devices like Fitbits increases. These devices can also track sleep, and some even track biometrics that can indicate fatigue.

And safety professionals are catching on. We now have “smart” personal protective equipment (PPE) that allows real-time measurement. There are hard hats, for example, equipped with EEG monitoring to detect brain activity associated with fatigue. A smart high-visibility vest can double as a heat stroke detector. Readibands can be worn by workers to monitor sleep quality.

Many of these smart devices are now starting to incorporate artificial intelligence to predict fatigue impairment. Algorithms can use current indicators to predict fatigue levels at the end of a shift – and that could affect how a company optimizes its workflow for safety.

Personalized programs work

In Pam’s years as an EHS professional, she’s seen that the most successful programs are those that incorporate a personal element. To get the buy-in you need from employees, clearly communicate the benefits to them (or the detriments of not participating). Your employees may not know what quality of sleep they’re actually getting. Implementing a program to measure it can reveal important truths from both a personal and an organizational perspective.

If you’re going to measure it, though, be sure to follow through on what you learn. Fatigue at work can play a crucial role in day-to-day risk assessment. For example, a supervisor at a manufacturing plant may not have the opportunity for face-to-face interaction with every employee on the floor that day. “Sometimes you don’t have time to have that personal interaction to understand that maybe someone’s got a newborn, and they shouldn’t be doing that high-risk activity right now,” Pam commented. Using technology, that supervisor might get a fatigue score alert. Then, then could proactively assess the risk of a particular task for that employee.

Fatigue is an important issue in all types of workplaces. As we learn more about the problem, however, new technologies emerge that can help safety professionals address it. It’s all part of a movement to widen the scope of what it means to care about employees and strive to keep them safe. It’s about valuing your employees not only as assets to your organization, but as people with families and loved ones.

Thank you to Pam for sharing her expertise with us on this topic. For more workplace safety resources, check out our free resource library.

February 25, 2019
Missouri Employers Mutual
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