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Fatigue in the workplace

Updated: Feb 16

We often feel tired, either at work or when we get home; our working lives are getting busier as we try to make ends meet in the time we have available.

As we try to cram more and more into the same number of hours, something has to give; often, it is either our health or our performance – or both.

Fatigue is a hidden chain around our feet, causing accidents and ill-health, costing employers in both time and money. It’s something that everyone needs to take into account – fatigue has been cited as a factor in a fifth of all accidents on major roads and is believed to cost anywhere between £115 and £240 million each year in terms of workplace accidents.

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a term that describes the problems caused by excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It can be defined as a decline in performance, both mental and physical.

It can cause:

  • slower reactions,

  • a reduced ability to take in and process information,

  • lapses in memory,

  • absent-mindedness,

  • decreased awareness,

  • lack of attention,

  • underestimation of risk,

  • reduced coordination,

  • reduced concentration,

  • unexpectedly falling asleep,

  • lack of motivation or interest in work,

  • irritability

What causes fatigue?

We have seen what the effects of fatigue can be, both on employers and employees. But what causes it in the first place?

It’s not just the length of the working shift that can cause employees to become tired. The nature of their work can be a factor as well. If tasks are boring or repetitive, this can intensity the feelings of fatigue.

Similarly, a poor quality of sleep may lead to the employee suffering from the effects of fatigue the next day. This is often quite insidious as the employee may think that they are rested due to having had a night’s sleep but in fact, they have not enjoyed quality sleep and so are still tired. This may have to do with a variety of causes – eating and drinking too close to bedtime, the effects of substances such as alcohol and caffeine, external factors like noise and family routines (newborn babies, for example) or trouble getting used to new shift patterns.

Studies have shown that there are certain times of the day where fatigue can be more pronounced – the very early hours of the morning, mid to late afternoon or soon after a meal are often times that tiredness can strike. Bearing this in mind, employers can combat the effects of fatigue by structuring breaks and shift start and end times accordingly.

The amount and quality of lighting in the work environment can also affect a person’s ability to function; if the lighting is too dim, it may cause employees to become sleepy and reduce attention and ability to function. The same holds true of weather conditions which reduce available daylight and the earlier onset of night as autumn progresses and gives way to winter.

The temperature in a workplace can increase tiredness – the warmer a workplace gets, the more likely it is that employees will find themselves struggling to stay alert.

Tasks that have to be repeated over and over again, are boring, monotonous or unengaging can lead to areas of the employee’s mind that handle attention to detail and focus starting to wander.

The harmful effects of fatigue

Fatigue does not just affect an employee’s performance on the job. It can also cause physical and psychological harm, including:

  • anxiety,

  • stress,

  • depression,

  • chest pain and shortness of breath,

  • muscle weakness or pain

  • digestive problems

  • reducing the effectiveness of the immune system

  • fevers and chills.

What does the law say?

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 are the main instrument for risk assessment and management systems to control fatigue.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 impose a duty on employers to provide health assessments for workers on night shifts. The employee does not have to accept the offer of an assessment but the employer must offer it.

The Working Time Regulations also govern maximum working hours per week and so will influence the way that employers design their work patterns.

12 solutions for employers

There are many different ways that employers can make adjustments to the working environment that can help in combatting the effects and causes of fatigue

  1. Ensuring that the workplace has good levels of lighting, comfortable temperatures and reasonable noise levels.

  2. Varying tasks during a shift to avoid repetition, lack of both interest and stimulation.

  3. Provision of onsite accommodation so workers can rest away from the working environment.

  4. Supply of meals for workers.

  5. Establishment of areas where workers can take a nap before they drive home, particularly if they need to do so at night.

  6. Take employee preferences into consideration – some people perform better in the morning and others at night.

In addition to dealing with the immediate workplace-based sources of fatigue, there are more strategic methods of managing fatigue and its effects.

  1. Make sure that there is a sufficient period between shifts that employees can get enough rest

  2. Structure the work timetable so that safety-critical tasks are not being carried out at the danger times of the day, such as the end of a night shift, the early morning, late afternoon or just after mealtimes.

  3. Establish a workplace culture where workers can report problems with fatigue to management, safe in the knowledge that there will be no negative repercussions and the management will take appropriate action to resolve these problems.

  4. Take steps to investigate all incidents where it is suspected that fatigue may have played a part.

  5. Encourage the development of good sleeping habits amongst the workforce. If there are factors which are affecting the quality sleep of employees, investigate to see if anything can be done

  6. Think about allowing workers to take short naps at certain points in their working day or shift. However, bear in mind that their effectiveness will not be at its peak for about half an hour to an hour after waking from the nap.

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