‘Fatigue management’ is an important concern for workplace safety.

But an article by someone considered to be an expert on the subject has once again convinced me that we are not getting ‘fatigue management’ right.

And there are consequences. By not getting fatigue management right workplaces are developing ‘fatigue management’ programs which are not effective and may even be missing the mark in terms of preventing accidents and injuries.

Secondly, by not getting fatigue management right, we end up providing employees with information that confuses and frustrates them. Worse yet, it hinders their ability to ensure their own safety.

And finally, by not getting it right, we are also missing an opportunity to make workplace safety programs much more efficient and effective.

So what are we not getting right about fatigue management?

What I see over and over again is that most information about ‘fatigue’ or ‘fatigue management’ doesn’t even focus on fatigue.  It focuses, instead, on ‘sleepiness’ and the management of ‘sleepiness’.

Now this might not seem like a big deal. After all ‘they’re just words’ and sleepiness and sleep deprivation are important workplace concerns anyway. (Learn more about sleep deprivation in the workplace. Go to https://schur-goode.thinkific.com.)

But in any other circumstance would you accept being sold one thing and finding that you actually were sold something different?

Would you think it was just a choice of words and it was ok to interchangeably use ‘sleepiness’ and ‘fatigue’ if you knew that sleepiness and fatigue are two distinct phenomena that  present in different ways and require different strategies to prevent and deal with the symptoms?

Would you think it was ok if you knew that by focusing only on sleepiness we are creating a dangerous situation for employers and employees who do not recognize faigue?

This is by far the biggest danger of not getting fatigue management right. When employees are only offered strategies to overcome sleepiness they do not know how to recognize fatigue and do not recognize that just because they are not sleepy does not mean they are not at risk.

(See a brief primer on sleepiness and fatigue below.)

Why We Need to Get it Right

In any workplace incident, especially when tools, equipment or vehicles are involved, one should consider not just the effect of sleepiness but also the effect of fatigue. There would be distinct factors pointing to one or the other. Distinguishing the two would also point to specific causes and remedies for future prevention.

But I believe that ‘getting it right’ could also include dispensing with ‘fatigue management’ programs entirely. Yes. You read that right!

Fatigue management programs focus on what we don’t want, what we want to prevent. Programs are much more successful when they focus on what we want, the goal we are trying to achieve, and that goal should be ‘alertness.’

Redefining our goal to focus on alertness has many benefits. This is primarily because alertness is not only about sleepiness and fatigue but also about fitness for duty and impairment.  Even though this would create a bigger umbrella it would be much more focused on the outcome we need to ensure safety.

What Now?

If you have an existing fatigue management program, consider reviewing it as per my comments above. If you’re not sure how to do that, I’d be happy to help.

If you are ready, develop a broadly-based Fitness for Duty program. This should address impairment and all aspects of sleepiness, fatigue and drug and alcohol consumption. Again, if you need help, give me a call.

If you want to do some immediate training for employees offer the ‘Power Up’ presentation. This presentation focuses on promoting Alertness.   For information, see https://carolynschur.com/fatigue-presentations.

If you want to learn more about sleepiness, fatigue and promoting alertness in your workplace, peruse the articles at https://carolynschur.com/category/fatigue or get the book ‘Alert@Work: Keys to Managing Sleep and Fatigue in the Workplace.’ It is an easy read and can be found at https://carolynschur.com/product/alert-work.

Sleepiness is a response to a physiological need and can only be overcome by meeting that need ie. sleeping. Common strategies to overcome sleepiness (caffeine, etc,) offer short term relief but will not prevent sleepiness if you really are sleep deprived.

Fatigue is a response to exertion, environmental conditions or lack of sleep. Fatigue can be physical, mental or emotional.

Physical fatigue – results from the use of muscles and exposure to sensory inputs. It may be experienced as tiredness, soreness or lethargy.

Emotional fatigue is a response to personal and workplace conditions. It is commonly called stress or ‘burnout. It may be experienced as sadness, emotional meltdowns or blowouts such as crying or interpersonal and physical conflict.

Mental fatigue is a response to the use of the brain when it is making decisions, problem-solving or devoting continuous attention to a work process or environment. It is experienced as ‘zoning out’ or inattention or complacency about tasks which can result in errors of ‘omission.’

© Carolyn Schur, August 2018. May be reprinted with attribution. www.carolynschur.com