Preventing and managing the increased risk of employee fatigue in healthcare during COVID-19

Increased demand for healthcare and social assistance services during the COVID-19 pandemic may increase the risk of work-related fatigue in some healthcare employees. This guidance can help employers prevent and manage that risk.

Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated

This guidance is correct as at time of publication, however, Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO) Directions and industry requirements are regularly updated. Readers of this guidance need to check the latest Victorian CHO Directions for applicability.

Restrictions apply across Victoria

Depending on your industry your workplace may:

  • be required to close temporarily for on-site work
  • remain open for on-site work with a completed COVIDSafe Plan in place
  • be subject to restricted operations or industry specific obligations

It is mandatory for every Victorian business with on-site operations to have a COVIDSafe Plan.

COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria may be updated at any time. You must stay up to date with changes for your industry.

How are my occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations impacted by the restrictions?

There is no change to your obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) as a result of the Directions issued by the Victorian Chief Health Officer (CHO).

Preparation of a COVIDSafe Plan forms part of the development of a safe system of work. However, having a COVIDSafe Plan and complying with the Victorian CHO Directions does not necessarily mean you have complied with all of your duties under the OHS Act and OHS Regulations.

You must follow any health directions that apply to how your business must operate, and ensure that you are meeting your obligations under the OHS Act. Employees must also comply with their duties under the OHS Act.

Crisis-only guidance

The fatigue risk management guidance on this page applies only during a surge in demand due to COVID-19 and other times of crisis. During times of normal operation, employers in the healthcare and social assistance industry should refer to WorkSafe's existing guidance on fatigue prevention and management.

Read the guidance on this page together with the WorkSafe guidance, Prevention and management of exposure to COVID-19 in the healthcare and social assistance industry.

Health and safety responsibilities

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must, so far as reasonably practicable, provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes preventing risks to safety and health, including psychological health, associated with potential exposure to COVID-19. This guidance can help employers and other duty holders fulfil their OHS Act responsibilities to prevent and manage the potential increased risk of fatigue in healthcare employees due to a surge in demand due to COVID-19.

Identifying risks

Employers must identify risks to employees' health from fatigue due to the COVID-19 crisis. This must be done in consultation with any health and safety representatives (HSRs), employees and independent contractors.

Increased risk of fatigue due to a surge in demand or crisis may arise from a range of factors, including:

  • working additional shifts
  • working longer shifts
  • dealing with more intense workloads
  • not getting adequate breaks
  • prolonged use of personal protective equipment (PPE) leading to difficulties rehydrating and communicating
  • the need to frequently change PPE

The increased demand because of a crisis such as COVID-19 can result in symptoms including, for example:

  • mental fatigue from periods of intensive concentration due to increased workload, working remotely or learning a new area of work
  • physical fatigue due to working in more difficult physical circumstances, increased patient load, wearing PPE or working with patients with higher acuity and physical needs
  • emotional fatigue from working long hours in high-pressure environments
  • stress from heavy patient loads and work demands affecting personal life
  • anxiety, including anticipation, fear and worry around what could happen
  • burnout from supporting others
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Quarantining and screening for COVID-19

Information about Care Facilities Directions and Workplace (Additional Industries Obligations) Directions issued by the Victorian CHO is available on the DH website.

If not subject to Care Facilities Directions or Workplace (Additional Industries Obligations) Directions issued by the Victorian CHO, employers should implement a screening process to minimise the introduction of COVID-19 to a workplace. This could include asking employees before they enter the workplace if they:

  • have any COVID-19 symptoms
  • have been in contact with any confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • are subject to any directions issued by the Victorian CHO, such as isolation, quarantine or in relation to travel

To ensure person-to-person contact is minimised, screening may be in the form of a self-assessment that employees can complete prior to attending the workplace for each shift.

The staff COVID-19 health questionnaire on the COVID-19 Victoria website is a useful screening tool for employers.

If an employee has symptoms

If an employee develops any of the symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, they should:

  • self-isolate immediately, seek advice from their doctor or the Victorian Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 675 398, and get tested
  • tell their employer as soon as possible, follow the procedures their workplace has in place, and update their employer if their situation changes, for example, if they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis

Ensure employees know what to do

An employer's duty to eliminate or reduce risks associated with exposure to COVID-19 so far as is reasonably practicable includes ensuring that:

  • employees know what to do or who to notify if they feel unwell or suspect they've been infected, according to the information provided by DH
  • any unwell employee does not attend the workplace, including those who have been tested for COVID-19 and received a negative test result
  • if employees are tested for COVID-19 because they are symptomatic they do not attend the work premises while awaiting the result of that test or if they are a confirmed COVID-19 case
    • employees who are awaiting results from surveillance testing and are asymptomatic may attend the work premises

The symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for are: fever, chills or sweats, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose and loss or change in sense of smell or taste. Some people may also experience headache, muscle soreness, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

In the event of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case at the workplace, CHO Directions may also require employers to take specific response actions.

Legal duties

Employers have duties under the OHS Act, which include that they must, so far as reasonably practicable:

  • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors
  • provide adequate facilities for the welfare of employees and independent contractors
  • provide such information, instruction, training or supervision to employees and independent contractors as is necessary to enable those persons to perform their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
  • monitor the health of employees at any workplace
  • monitor conditions at any workplace under the employer's management and control
  • provide information concerning health and safety to employees, including, where appropriate, in languages other than English
  • ensure that persons other than employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer
  • consult with employees and any HSRs on matters related to health or safety that directly affect, or are likely to directly affect them

A person with management or control of a workplace must ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act, which includes that they must:

  • take reasonable care for their own health and safety
  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of persons who may be affected by the employee's acts or omissions at a workplace
  • co-operate with their employer with respect to any action taken by the employer to comply with a requirement imposed by or under the OHS Act

The OHS Act gives HSRs a role in raising and resolving any OHS issues with their employer, and powers to take issues further if necessary. WorkSafe has guidance on powers for HSRs and a card linking to the guidance appears in Further information.