All In But One’s Shoestrings

“All in but one’s shoestrings” is an idiom that means totally done-in or hanging by a thread. How often have we have seen others nodding off at their desks or in meetings or perhaps caught ourselves struggling to stay alert? According to a 2018 report by the National Safety Council (NSC), 69 percent of workers feel fatigued at work, which the NSC defines as “feelings of tiredness, sleepiness, reduced energy, and increased effort needed to perform tasks at a desired level.” People continue to underestimate the effects of fatigue and its impact on organizations, considering it a reasonable condition of working; however, it is much more than just being tired.

Fatigue triggers reduced cognitive performance, leading to more errors and less productivity. Fatigued workers lose an average of 5.6 hours of productive time per week, which is 2.5 times higher than their healthier counterparts. On an annual basis, that equates to 291 hours or roughly seven weeks of lost time per employee. In dollars and cents, fatigue costs employers about $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity, of which 84 percent is due to presenteeism rather than absenteeism. What does that mean at an organizational level? A Fatigue Cost Calculator created in a joint initiative between the NSC and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that an organization with 1,000 employees loses $1.4 million a year due to the combination of absenteeism, presenteeism, health care costs, occupational costs, and accidents associated with fatigue.

For those organizations that function around the clock, the risk of injury for employees on night shifts is 30 percent higher than for those on day shifts, particularly between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. On average, 59 percent of employees who work night shifts sleep less than seven hours per day. The resulting sleep deficit has a proportional impact on the risk of injury, increasing to 36 percent on the fourth consecutive night shift. To add context, losing two hours of sleep is similar to consuming three beers, and remaining awake for 24 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10, according to related research by centers for occupational health and safety. A mounting sleep debt poses an increased risk for employees operating a motor vehicle, and the risk is not limited to the employee.

Symptoms of fatigue vary and may include chronic tiredness or sleepiness, impaired decision-making and judgment, forgetfulness, irritability, reduced productivity, negative or cynical attitude, emotional outbursts, poor concentration, low motivation, isolation, etc. How do we get here? The two leading causes of fatigue are sleep deprivation and environmental factors such as noise, vibration, temperature, etc. Other work-related reasons include long hours, changes in shift rotations, excessive stress, multiple jobs, inadequate rest, or a combination. Organizations should not overlook corporate culture in this mix. Do you expect employees to be “on” at all times? Do the espoused values of the organization align with actual practice?

Moving the needle begins with education. According to the NSC, 80 percent of employees are not aware of the causes and risks of fatigue, leaving them ill-equipped to recognize when their work lives may be adversely affected. Employers should make it a point to share information about the symptoms of fatigue and its negative impacts; arming employees with knowledge may prompt them to seek help when needed.

Because of a negative association around emotional and mental health-related matters, employers also need to take steps to normalize conversations around stress; bringing employees together to share concerns may help defuse some of the pressure. Provide employees with ready access to professional help by alerting them to available options such as the health plan or an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) throughout the year and not just during open enrollment cycles.

Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction takes time, patience, and commitment. Employers need to encourage employees to recharge, and it starts at the top with an awareness of fatigue and its far-reaching effects. Challenge leaders to set clear expectations and model boundaries such as breaks, realistic deadlines, email, and work/life balance. Do you “walk the talk” throughout the organization? If not, the organization may find itself all in but the shoestrings.