Workplace fatigue is so common in our society that we seem to have accepted it as the norm. According to the National Safety Council, more than 43 percent of workers are sleep-deprived—that’s nearly half of all employees. Yet we as a culture don’t seem to be making any moves to change that. In fact, working ourselves to the point of exhaustion is often treated as license to brag, a sign that we’re truly industrious and “good” employees.
Ironically, fatigue can have the opposite effect. Whether we’re stifling yawns in meetings or zoning out over reports, poor sleep can impact our attention spans, and our abilities to solve problems, learn, and effectively communicate. It is estimated that sleep deprivation costs US businesses over $400 billion annually in lost productivity.
Fatigue also poses a number of health and safety risks. Since June is National Safety Month, we’re highlighting the importance of staying well-rested both on a mental and physical level.
What is Fatigue?
Everyone feels tired on occasion, and temporary bouts of fatigue usually have a clear cause (staying up late the night before, stressing out over a performance review) and a quick resolution.
Chronic fatigue, however, can have more serious consequences. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic fatigue is “a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration.”
There are many potential causes of chronic fatigue, including mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, or the drugs used to treat them. Work-related factors can also play a major role. Long work hours, irregular shifts, stressful tasks, and the temptation to keep working even after we’ve clocked out can all contribute to chronic fatigue in the workplace.
The Dangers of Workplace Exhaustion
It’s tempting to push through fatigue to get our jobs done, especially in work-centric cultures like Washington, DC. Yet ignoring your symptoms can have a number of negative effects, as fatigue has been known to cause and exacerbate mental health conditions like depression and sleep disorders, as well as physiological problems such as heart disease, reproductive problems, and digestive issues.
Further, exhaustion can alter work performance, leading to lower mood and confidence and increased anxiety and self-doubt. We may begin to see ourselves as lazy or incompetent when really we’re just not getting the rest we need.
Chronic fatigue in the workplace can also lead to professional burnout. This can result in a lack of motivation, cynicism and sense of being incompetent at your job.
There are several things you can do to lower your risk for workplace fatigue. The first is to practice good sleep hygiene, which includes the following.
- Sleep 7-9 hours a night without disruptions. Silence your devices, use earplugs or white noise machines to block out sound, sleep in warm/cool clothes to accommodate temperature needs, and consider an alternate location for a pet that has a tendency to pounce on or kick you.
- Establish a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day can help set your sleep-wake cycle.
- Avoid caffeine before bedtime. Consider how foods–such as candy and non-herbal teas–may be affecting your sleep.
- Switch from TV before bed to a non-electronic activity. Grab a book or crossword puzzle, do some gentle yoga or practice deep breathing. Use bedtime to set a healthy ritual.
Along with improving sleep, setting up new workplace rules and boundaries can help you maintain your wellness in and out of the office.
- Schedule breaks. Research suggests that working for 52 minutes, followed by a 17 minute break, is the ideal balance for maximizing your productivity. This may not be possible in most workplaces, given the organizational tendency to allow one 30-minute lunch in an eight-hour day. Nonetheless, try to experiment with micro-breaks throughout the day (1-2 minutes) to stretch, grab a snack, take a few deep breaths or go outside for air. Studies have shown that even brief pauses can prove restorative and provide a cumulative benefits over the course of the day.
- Limit work communications to work time. Before the digital age, people stopped working once they exited their offices. Now with smartphones and other devices, the urge to check our voicemails and emails can be hard to resist. Setting boundaries between work and personal time goes a long way in reducing job-related fatigue. Route work emails to a folder that won’t show you notifications on your phone. Consider setting your phone to “Do Not Disturb,” or use features that let you filter in only personal calls or texts.
- Establish daily goals. Make a list of priority or urgent tasks at the beginning of your work day. This will help you maintain focus on what’s most important early in the day, and avoid surprises at 5 pm when you’re getting ready to close up shop.
- Avoid using alcohol to cope with stress. Our society has normalized using substances like alcohol to cope with workplace stress and/or exhaustion. From Olivia Pope to Cersei Lannister, we’re constantly shown images of people drinking to find relief from their problems.
When the use of alcohol or other substances becomes a routine way of “taking the edge off” of stress, there is risk of escalation to dependency or abuse. This in turn can lead to harmful effects on a person’s long-term personal and professional functioning, as well as contribute to a range of health-related illnesses and conditions. Over time, alcohol and other substances can change the way our brains function, impairing judgment, memory, and our ability to process information.
If you are struggling with workplace stress, extreme fatigue, or alcohol or drug use, there are many resources available to you. At Viva, we always welcome your queries via email at email@example.com. In addition, you’ll find helpful information and tools online at the Resilient Brain Project, a library of free resources covering a wide range of mental health conditions.
Most of us will experience workplace fatigue periodically throughout our lives, with no significant disruption to our day-to-day functioning. Chronic fatigue, on the other hand, warrants attention given the risks it poses to our health and psychological well being. Luckily, the strategies outlined in this article can help you build resilience against workplace fatigue, while forge a healthier, more satisfying life.
Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a chain of drug and alcohol rehab facilities. He has been working in the healthcare space for 7 years with a new emphasis on recovery. His vision is to save a million lives in 100 years with a unique approach to recovery that creates a supportive environment through trust, treatment, and intervention. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org