Factors that contribute to work-related fatigue

This guidance explains the factors that can lead to fatigue, including the direct impacts of the work a person does, the indirect impacts of their workplace environment, and individual factors.

Definition of work-related fatigue

Fatigue is an acute and/or ongoing state that leads to physical, mental or emotional exhaustion and prevents people from functioning safely. Working long hours, with intense mental or physical effort, or during some or all of the natural time for sleep, can cause fatigue. All of these have obvious implications for workplace and public safety. Fatigue can also have long-term effects on health.

Factors that contribute to the risk of fatigue

To effectively prevent fatigue in the workplace, it is important to understand the different factors, that contribute directly or indirectly to fatigue.

Key factors that can impact fatigue and the mental wellbeing of employees can be categorised as follows:

  • organisation or workplace-level factors, such as:
    • work environment, remote or isolated work
    • leadership and culture (including how people relate to each other)
    • workplace policies and practices, such as recognition and reward, change management
  • work and task-level factors, such as:
    • high or low job demands
    • role clarity, control and conflict
    • work duration, scheduling and shift work
    • physically or mentally demanding work involving heavy, repetitive or prolonged manual handling or concentration for extended periods of time
  • employee or individual factors, such as:
    • job knowledge and capability
    • personal factors such as health and sleep

These factors can be interrelated and may have a cumulative effect on work-related fatigue. All factors present at the workplace should be considered – please use the link at the end of this guidance to download the complete PDF document, which provides more detail.

Organisational factors

Culture

An organisation’s culture creates the unwritten rules that guide employees’ behaviour, including how they interact with each other, interpret and respond to change or events, and what they choose to prioritise. A positive organisational culture that prioritises safety plays an important role in the prevention and management of work-related illness and injury, including fatigue.

These cultures can be created by ensuring leadership behaviours and workplace policies and practices, such as rewards for safe behaviour and consequences for unsafe behaviour, are aligned with improved health and safety outcomes.

Management practices that prioritise a safety culture include:

  • vocal and active promotion of employee safety
  • committing to seeking out and implementing new and improved ways of doing things
  • developing policies and procedures to prevent and manage fatigue, and ensuring they are implemented and promoted
  • rewarding or recognising managers and employees who prioritise safety
  • ensuring accountability for managers and employees who do not prioritise safety
  • providing genuine opportunities for employees to raise issues and have input into decision-making
  • making employees' roles and responsibilities clear
  • encouraging and enabling teams to work well together, and with other groups across their workplace, to solve problems and get work done
  • ensuring employees have, or are provided with, the skills, knowledge, support and resources they need to do their work safely
  • role modelling safe work practices

Leadership

Leadership at all levels plays an essential role in creating a positive culture that prioritises safety. Active and visible commitment to prevention and management of workplace fatigue from the top down is critical for driving positive change and ensuring fatigue risk is managed continuously and well.

In particular, leaders, managers and supervisors should take responsibility for:

  • setting and enforcing health and safety objectives and accountabilities
  • ensuring effective health and safe systems of work are in place to identify and control risk
  • developing and promoting policy and key initiatives to support safety
  • allocating resources to the prevention and management of workplace fatigue
  • consulting with Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and employees and creating opportunities for employees to speak up about risks and their ideas for managing these
  • role modelling compliance with policies and other desired behaviour
  • providing the support, information, feedback and resources for employees to do their job and manage work demands, including additional support during difficult events such as organisational change or downsizing
  • setting realistic workloads
  • managing expectations from the top down to ensure employees are not unfairly disadvantaged for adhering to reasonable work hours
  • providing support and assistance for employees who are experiencing difficulties

Policies and procedures

Policies and procedures that prioritise safety and accountability are important foundations for effective fatigue risk management. Other organisational policies and procedures can also play an important role in supporting or inhibiting appropriate fatigue risk management by impacting physical and psychosocial factors, for example:

  • job design
  • policies that influence levels of job demands and control
  • reward and recognition policies
  • policies that ensure appropriate employee support and consultation
  • procedures for managing workplace conflict and ensuring fair treatment
  • rostering policies that ensure sufficient sleep opportunity is given to employees
  • procedures for managing situations where there is a higher workload/demand than expected (escalation framework)

Physical work environment

The physical work environment, including harsh or uncomfortable environmental conditions, can contribute to the risk of fatigue. Heat, cold, inadequate lighting and vibration are some of the environmental conditions that can make employees tire sooner and impair performance.

Poor environmental design, such as not having opportunities to separate oneself from the public and take adequate rest, can also impact fatigue.

Work factors

Work demands

The demands of work can contribute to employees becoming impaired by fatigue. Concentrating for extended periods of time, performing repetitious or monotonous work, multiple or simultaneous demands, meeting tight or unreasonable deadlines, and performing work that requires continued physical or emotional effort can lead to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, which increases the risk of fatigue. Work-related driving is an example of a task requiring sustained attention.

Work duration

The way working periods are planned and scheduled, such as when employees are next required to work night and extended shifts, can increase the risk of fatigue and illness.

Fatigue can result from failing to allow employees enough time for travel to and from work or to recover through sleep, relaxation and socialisation.

Scheduling and planning

The time of day that work is performed can impact on the risk of fatigue. Working at times when employees are biologically programmed to sleep can disrupt an employee's body clock and lead to fatigue. Regular disruption of the body clock has also been linked to an increased risk of illness, such as certain types of cancer, mood disorders, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic disorders.

Employee factors

Knowledge and skills

Employees must be provided with the appropriate training and information to ensure they know how to comply with safety objectives and accountabilities, and also to ensure they are able to meet or manage the demands of their role.

Personal factors

There may be factors contributing to employee fatigue and sleep deprivation that exist beyond the workplace, which are specific to the person who is affected. For example, lifestyle factors such as child care responsibilities, voluntary work, having more than one job, personal stressors such as family violence, impact of a person's social life, or the home environment. Refer to Appendix 3 - Tips on avoiding fatigue, in the complete PDF document.

Employee health and wellbeing

While employers do not have control over employee activities outside of work, if they choose, they can have a role in promoting healthy lifestyles which may help to prevent illness, injury and have benefits for work-related fatigue. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety.

Resources for workplace-based health promotion include: