03 Aug 2015

Balance or burnout? Managing fatigue in the modern workplace

by Shae McCartney, Melissa Demarco

There are practical steps workplaces can undertake to foster a culture that reinforces safe work practices and supports employee wellbeing.

Preventing and managing fatigue in ever changing work environments is a challenge facing most employers and workers in Australia. In the mining industry, for many years fatigue has been identified as a significant workplace health and safety hazard.

Career advancement, job security, heavy workloads, shift work, financial pressures, budget restraints and fear of failure are some of the contributing factors that can play a part in workers pushing themselves to the point of fatigue and exhaustion.

When additional personal factors are introduced such as illness, medical conditions, poor diet, lack of exercise, sleep disturbances, substance abuse, and family issues the consequences can be compounded. If not managed appropriately, the consequences of fatigue can been fatal, as has occurred in cases discussed below.

When fatigue risk factors are identified and managed correctly, however, it does not only support managing safety risks and maximising productivity and engagement. It can also support employee wellbeing, including assisting employees manage work/life balance.

Developing practices in the workplace with a focus on sustainability, not only for our natural resources, but human resources, is therefore vital. This article explores some of the common myths around fatigue management and outlines practical steps workplaces can undertake to foster a culture that reinforces safe work practices and supports employee wellbeing, and where coming to work fatigued is not considered an acceptable or accepted option.

Recognising fatigue

Fatigue is commonly defined as a state of impairment associated with reduced performance and alertness and impaired decision making. Common symptoms of fatigue include poor performance, reduced energy, tiredness/lethargy, psychological disturbances, poor concentration and mood swings.  

As each employee is different, recognising whether an employee is affected by fatigue can sometimes be difficult.

The signs of fatigue can often be common symptoms of other disorders. The involvement of a qualified medical specialist is essential for proper assessment, diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms can also be overlooked particularly given different employees can react/be affected by situations differently. What one person may perceive as stressful and challenging, another person may not.

Further, the use of stimulants and suppressants (e.g. caffeine, alcohol, medications etc) may mask the symptoms of fatigue.

In conjunction with this, there can also be organisational barriers that impede the ability to identify and manage fatigue. A 2015 study on fatigue has found, the major barriers impacting on an organisation's ability to identify and manage fatigue have been due to financial constraints, lack of priority or attention given by management and poor understanding on health and safety, particularly in relation to the effects of fatigue.

Causes of fatigue

Work practices may disrupt an individual's sleep patterns, affecting an individual's internal body clock, leading to cumulative or "banked" fatigue. However, this is only one potential factor out of many.

As mentioned above, there are many additional factors that can contribute to fatigue, including:

  • sleep disruption, sleep disorders, insomnia and other diseases
  • substance abuse
  • physically demanding or repetitive activities
  • stressful situations
  • unplanned work, overtime, emergencies, breakdowns and call-outs
  • time commuting to/from work and home
  • long absences from home
  • environmental factors
  • physical and mental job demands
  • organisational behaviours
  • financial circumstances
  • individual family circumstances (e.g. having young children)

In the mining industry, where shift-work is common, patterns can emerge of workers not using their "off" time for rest and relaxation and returning to work more exhausted than when they left. As employers generally have limited awareness of what employees do outside of work, it can be difficult to identify and manage the source of fatigue, where this is occurring. This is not limited to any particular position within an organisational hierarchy; management are particularly vulnerable to fatigue given their ongoing responsibilities and being "on call" 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Risks of fatigue

Fatigue obviously has the potential to impair decision making and has the ability to result in high risk incidents due to workers not being physically and mentally alert. Workers who are fatigued are more likely to exercise poor judgment and have a difficult time responding to changing circumstances. Despite these risks being well known and identified in the industry, given the complex overlay of social and personal impacts that are outside of an employer's control, organisations still struggle with how to respond to the risk of fatigue..

Cumulative or long term exposure to fatigue has been linked to long-term health problems which are often then masked or compounded by other issues e.g. obesity, poor performance, psychological illness.

Fatigue increases risks of incidents occurring away from the worksite, for example, when the person is driving back to their residence or accommodation. For example, the Coronial Inquest into the deaths of Senior Constable Malcolm MacKenzie, Mr Graham Brown and Mr Robert Wilson [1] arising from two separate incidents, one in 2005 at Yeppoon and the other in 2007 at Dysart respectively, prompted a number of publications on the dangers and risks of fatigue. Both incidents involved mine workers returning to their respective homes after working their normal shifts.

In the Finding of Inquest, Coroner Hennessy found that, while there were other factors involved, fatigue was likely a contributing factor to the 2005 Yeppoon incident and that fatigue was the cause of the 2007 Dysart collision.

Notably, since the Coronial Inquest, a Guidance Note was issued by the Mines Inspectorate of the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines in 2013 (QGN16 Fatigue Risk Management) reinforcing fatigue as a hazard.

Practical fatigue management

So how does an organisation which is heavily dependent on shift-work identify and manage risk factors associated with fatigue, particularly those which are less obvious?

There is no simple answer. Effectively managing the fatigue and the hazard it poses is everyone's responsibility.

Australia wide, employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace that is free from risk so far as reasonably practicable. This duty includes implementing adequate control measures to address the risks associated with fatigue.

This duty is mirrored at the individual level. However, as mentioned above, the risk of human error alongside other competing factors highlights the significance of having mechanisms in place for management to identify and manage workplace fatigue so far as reasonably practicable.

Under the myriad of mining health and safety regulatory framework, a positive obligation is imposed on an Operator to identify hazards, develop and implement a risk management plan if risk factors (direct or contributing) with a medium to high potential for fatigue are identified. For this reason, regular monitoring and review of the mine site's risk management plan is critical.

The challenge faced by employers is not only about what they do know or ought to know, but what they don't know. That is, what happens outside of working hours or away from the workplace when work may or may not be a contributing factor.

Managing risk within this statutory framework therefore involves the co-operation and communication at both the management and the individual levels of the organisation.

At the individual level, it is important to:

  • develop an understanding of what fatigue is and the risk it poses to health and safety;
  • understand and comply with workplace policies; and
  • be able to identify when you are fatigued, and if you are fatigued utilise available support to address it, including seeking medical advice from your doctor.

At an organisational level, while employers cannot control what workers do outside of working hours, there are mechanisms that can be utilised to manage risks associated with fatigue at the workplace and assist employees co-operatively identify and manage these risks, including:

  • having clear policies and procedures regarding safety and risk management that incorporate fatigue management;
  • training and educating employees regarding these policies and fatigue management;
  • incorporating the risk of impairment through fatigue into risk assessments;
  • undertake risk assessments on rosters, long shifts may involve an acceptable level of risk where additional controls are put in place;
  • providing education to enable managers to identify fatigue symptoms and provide them with the skills and support to appropriately discuss and address these issues with employees in accordance with workplace policies; providing flexible working arrangements and adjusting rostering, including rostering management where they work for both the organisation and the employee;
  • regular and frequent rest breaks;
  • implement travel plans for DIDO or long rosters; and
  • supervision of workers to detect fatigue.

While burning the midnight oil is nothing new, it is important that fatigue and the risks that can stem from it are managed to support balance, not burnout in the workplace.


This article was first published in the Australasian Mine Safety Journal, Winter 2015


[1] Inquest into the deaths of Malcolm MACKENZIE, Graham Peter BROWN and Robert WILSON (2005/31; 2005/32; 2007/147). Back to article

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