For many safety practitioners the cure-all for worker safety is if the “idiots would just pay attention and do what they are told, we wouldn’t have injuries.” I have heard these very words and variations thereof, scores of time. The typical reactionary response from many and more in our industry is to launch another awareness campaign, which presumes two things: people weren’t aware of the dangers and people unknowingly put them self at risk. I have been injured on the job and off the job and in most cases, I knew or should have known the risks I was taking so a sign telling me to be careful would not have helped. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and a place where awareness campaigns aren’t helpful—but only when they are warning of a new, heretofore unknown hazard (think: “Bridge Out Ahead”)
On the other hand, I have been injured, made poor choices, and took risks that I ordinarily wouldn’t have, because of fatigue. Fatigue is more than just being tired; it’s being exhausted and it can manifest in illness, increased probability of poor decision making and increased risk-taking. It is no accident that casinos have no clocks, and bright lights and enticements to keep you at the tables or slot machines. In Las Vegas, you are encouraged to stay up all night and a good casino has everything you need to keep you up and at the casino. Why? Because casinos make their money by people making foolish choices and taking unreasonable risks.
According to an article by Polly Campbell in Psychology Today “The more mentally tired we become, the less capable we are of keeping up with the demands of the day. It becomes harder to make healthy decisions, stay focused on tasks, and remain calm. It can also become difficult to regulate our emotions. Over time, mental exhaustion can lead to full-blown burnout, physical issues, and stress-related illness. But, as soon as you realize why you are feeling so tired, you can take steps to restore and feel better fast.”
In many cases, our very efforts to keep people safe by heaping more and more information on to them actually increases mental fatigue and instead of making things safer we actually increase the likelihood of injuries.
I’ve worked an assembly line, nine hours of back-breaking mind-numbing work five days a week one week and six days a week the next, alternating but sometimes doubling up on the Saturdays (our Union contract prohibited more than two Saturdays in a row). The work was literally exhausting—sometimes it was all I could do to make the drive home. As arduous as this work was, it is nothing compared to many modern workplaces who work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, and to that, a modest 30-minute commute and you have a recipe for disaster. Studies have shown that a sufficiently fatigued individual is as impaired as someone who is legally drunk.
According to WebMD, “Fatigue can be described as the lack of energy and motivation (both physical and mental). This is different than drowsiness, a term that describes the need to sleep…Also, fatigue can be a normal response to physical and mental activity; in most normal individuals it is quickly relieved (usually in hours to about a day, depending on the intensity of the activity) by reducing the activity.” That’s great, but a growing number of worker are becoming fatigued and less resilient because of prolonged overwork, heightened stress both at work and outside work, or existing medical conditions from diabetes to mental health issues and corporate and individual greed (front-line and middle-managers who are desperate to make their production Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)) are pushing people too hard.
There is a major disconnect between the medical establishment and corporate America. The cure for fatigue? Rest. How likely is it that a company facing a labor shortage and a steady demand are going to cut back on the speed and hour of production? Not very.
What’s more, the time and physical demands of work aren’t the only cause of fatigue. Prolonged concentration is also a major factor in causing mental fatigue, so awareness campaigns if they are working (they probably aren’t) can actually exacerbate the situation by forcing people to concentrate excessively.
Another way that “attention fatigue” is caused is through shorter cycles and takt times. Cycle time is the time it takes to complete one job. When I was building seats by cycle time was 55 seconds, which meant that for me to make production I had to completely assemble two seats (right and left side) in 55 seconds. Takt time is the number of units a customer demands in a given period of time (typically each day but it ould be each week or some other period.) Takt time was the determinant of whether our shift was 8 hour or 9 hours and whether or not we had to work Saturdays. The longer the cycle time the more steps a worker has to remember and the higher the takt time the more times a worker has to do this task. I worked at a manufacturer that had a 20 minute cycle time for most jobs and had a takt time of 240 units a week. This meant that if everything went precisely to plan we had to work 5 ten hour shifts, and if anything disrupted production we had to work over time. This was 20 years ago, but we wondered why we had so many injuries at this particular plant, especially expensive ergonomic injuries. Absenteeism was high and illness was rampant. Workers were irritable and tense and tempers frequently flared. Our turnover rate was high and the time it took to bring workers up to speed was substantial. Looking back our workers were fatigued, but that wasn’t something we knew or thought about back then. We focused on the work and we were working our employees to death without a clue as to what to do about it.
At the time we were the most productive manufacturing plant in North America, but the work wasn’t just physically hard, it was mentally taxing and trying to perform 50 separate tasks to perfection in 20 minutes soon wore on people. The project finished long before we figured things out, but it’s a lesson I never forgot.
High cycle time and takt times aren’t limited to manufacturing, they’re just better and more clearly defined in manufacturing. Call centers are expected to process calls in x time and must process x calls a shift or the call center operator is not “making shift”. This leads to prioritizing production over the customer and in many jobs over safety. Even jobs where a mistake will not lead to an injury, the boiler room pressure it creates causes mental and physical fatigue that becomes a vicious circle.
Fatigue is a possibility in every workplace. I literally had to take a nap after beginning this piece yesterday. I work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week and write 5,000-10,000 words a week on my off time. The pressure to sell and remain billable in the world of global consulting is extreme, to say the least, and my job is no exception. You’re only as good as your last sale and like any other top company, management is always keeping a watchful job on the lowest performers. Fortunately, my company emphasizes coaching over cuts, but just like your job the pressure is always there.
So what can be done?
- Take “micro” breaks. Taking shorter breaks more frequently is a good way to reset your brain. Longer breaks tend to make it tougher to go back to work, but a quick 5-minute break can refresh and rejuvenate you.
- Exercise. Bleeck right? Who wants to exercise when they are physically exhausted? Experts have found that mild exercise will help relieve both physical and mental fatigue. I personally start my day at 4:30 a.m. with a 20 minute work out on the elliptical and another 20 minutes at lunch, and finally, at 3:00 p.m. When I can barely keep my eyes open I force myself to do another 20-minute workout. In the morning it wakes me up, at lunch, it clears my head of all the clutter that people have caused, and at 3:00 it rejuvenates me (and since it is well before my bedtime I am able to sleep well at night.
- Meditate. Praying, meditating, or just conjuring up pleasant memories of that great vacation you took are a great way to fight fatigue. Building your spiritual core is a great way to build resilience and fight fatigue.
- Stay Optimistic. Sometimes the only thing that got me through my work week was thinking how great my weekend was going to be. Looking at the bright side of life is more than just a Monty Python song, it’s critical advice for building your resilience.
- Eat Right. Junk food is filled with empty calories which make it tougher for your body to summon the energy needed to fight fatigue.
Look out the window. Taking a look out the window (or better yet taking a quick walk outside) can be surprisingly restorative. When I worked in a factory, I purchased and brought my own cleaning supplies to work so that I could wash the two windows (caked with 100 years of grime) so that I could tell what kind of weather we were having. People said I was crazy but it made me feel a little bit better, and that’s how you beat fatigue and burn out, a little bit at a time.
I am proud to announce that Marriah Publishing has published my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. This is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. And I can now say that it is finally safe to order it (we have corrected the quality control issues and expect to have it out this week). In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)
Of course, my first book is still for sale…
Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com.
Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.
The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).
In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free (without sponsors or advertising) clearly damned near zero moral support from people who could and do benefit from my notoriety for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy a damned book.